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Election Fairness and Government Legitimacy in Afghanistan

Development Challenge

Fair elections are a hallmark of legitimate government. Proponents of fair elections as a condition for government legitimacy argue that even poorly conducted elections can facilitate some peaceful competition among political leaders and can increase the chance of consolidating democracy in transitional political environments. Yet, in post-conflict countries, the evidence is mixed. Early elections can incite more violence and undermine a government’s legitimacy if elections heavily favor one political party, fraud is prevalent, or politics are divided along race, ethnic or religious lines. More rigorous evidence from post-conflict areas is needed to establish conclusions about the impact of fair elections, specifically anti-fraud efforts, on government legitimacy.


The United States has attempted to build a functioning and legitimate government in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. To this end, the United States oversaw the 2005 elections to the Wolesi Jirga – Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament,  and the 2009 presidential elections. Both elections were plagued with claims of fraud and corruption (as was last month’s Presidential election), which elicited concerns about Afghanistan’s domestic instability. As a result, the international community considered the 2010 Wolesi Jirga elections a critical point for improving the country’s political institutions. Strong anti-fraud monitoring for the 2010 elections was particularly important because strong incentives for candidates to commit voter fraud could have compromised electoral fairness. 

Evaluation Strategy

This study examines the effects of an anti-fraud intervention during the 2010 Wolesi Jirga elections on both the occurrence of fraud and the perception of legitimacy. The intervention was a letter sent to polling station managers indicating that their elections returns forms would be compared to certified results from the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan. The researchers randomly assigned 238 out of 471 polling stations in provincial centers to receive the letter. Research measured both reductions in electoral fraud and citizens’ perceptions of governmental legitimacy to determine the effects of the elections.  The researchers measured perceptions of legitimacy three months after the elections. The researchers interviewed local community members about theft from or damage to polling stations as a measure of electoral fairness.  To determine whether election reform had a causal effect on government legitimacy, the study fielded a post-election survey to 2,904 respondents living in the immediate vicinity of their polling stations. The survey asked respondents about their perceptions of the state of democracy in Afghanistan, the provision of public services, and trust in formal procedures, which combined give a multi-dimensional measure for legitimacy.  

Results and Policy Implications

Effects on Prevalence of Fraud

Polling centers that received the letter experienced fewer instances of voter fraud in three ways:

  • Treatment decreased damage or theft of forms by 11 percent.
  • Votes for candidates likely to engage in fraud were reduced by 20 percent, and
  • Candidates likely to engage in fraud were approximately 10 percent less likely to be elected.

Effects on Perceived Government Legitimacy

Respondents living near the anti-fraud intervention polling centers had better perceptions and were more supportive of the government. In treatment areas, respondents were:

  • 4.1 percent more likely to believe that members of parliament were responsible for providing public services
  • 2.8 percent more likely to report knowledge of insurgents to the Afghanistan National Security Forces, and
  • 3.6 percent more likely to use the police to resolve disputes.

The findings also demonstrate no changes in perception or support of government among participants who were aware the anti-fraud intervention was run by an external organization rather than the government. This suggests that interventions that improve electoral fairness can enhance legitimacy by changing citizens’ attitudes towards the government and that the design of the intervention plays a key role in determining the impact.



Photo Credit:Afghan Women's Network, "Afghan women register to vote before the October 2004 election".