Afghanistan’s last election almost tore the country apart. The next one has to be different. In an opinion article for Foreign Policy, Tabish Forugh explores the pitfalls – and options – for the country’s next nation-wide parliamentary and polls this coming May.
September 21, 2014, after months of gridlock following a hotly contested election, Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah signed a power-sharing deal to form a National Unity Government. As part of the arrangement, Ghani became Afghanistan’s president while Abdullah assumed the newly created position of chief executive officer, who heads the cabinet.
Crucially, the agreement also requires the establishment of a special electoral reform commission to address allegations of electoral fraud and mismanagement and attempt to rebuild the public’s badly eroded trust in the electoral process. The need for such a plan is obvious, given just how destructive election-related disputes have been. In the last election both candidates claimed to have been victims of fraud, with Abdullah in particular pointing to leaked phone conversations which appeared to show staff of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) colluding with members of Ghani’s campaign to arrange stuffing of ballot boxes.
But since the agreement, Afghan officials have done little to make the reform commission a reality. Nor has the international community pushed them to do so — and time is running out. The next parliamentary and district council elections, currently scheduled for May 2015, will elect a majority of the Loya Jirga (the Grand National Assembly), which is responsible for voting on important constitutional amendments. It is imperative that these elections be seen as legitimate, which will require carrying out decisive structural and legal reforms well ahead of time. Realistically, there no longer much of a chance that this is possible, making it advisable to postpone these elections until the summer of 2016. This would allow the Independent Election Committee (IEC) and the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) to remedy their technical and institutional failures and would give the new reform commission and the international community time to make the necessary changes.
There are four key areas in need of reform. Above all else, the problem of credibility needs to be addressed. Because the election commissions have become increasingly discredited and unable to fulfill their mandates, their current leadership should step down. Ghani and Abdullah, counterbalancing one another’s political motives, must call for a selection committee to appoint new independent and impartial leaders for these crucial electoral bodies. Furthermore, for the sake of pluralism, the government must invite electoral experts, civil society activists, and lawyers to participate as election commission officers.
Aside from replacing particular directors, improving credibility will also require redesigning the structure of how the IEC is governed. Among other shortcomings, the current arrangement leads to managerial conflict between two key positions: the chairman and the chief electoral officer (CEO), both appointed by the president. In the law, these positions are ranked equally and have no clearly defined roles. In practice, the chairman has little involvement in supervising electoral operations and by and large shows deference to the CEO. Meanwhile, the accusations of ballot stuffing implicating the CEO are evidence that this position is not being effectively monitored. To improve the work of the commissions, redefining their managerial hierarchy and instituting checks and balances must be a priority. The CEO position, for example, should be downgraded from the ministerial level to the highest civil servant position, where he or she would be obligated to report to senior management on daily electoral operations.
Technical improvements to enable the IEC to keep tally of Afghanistan’s voters are the second crucial reform. Although the IEC has conducted full-scale voter registration efforts since 2004, the commission lacks a reliable database to track eligible voters and has difficulty identifying appropriate polling stations. No one knows exactly how many eligible voters there are or where the district boundaries are located. As a result, election operations in Afghanistan are largely based on imprecise estimates.
To address this, the key step would be to establish a verified voter registration list. This will not only bolster the transparency and credibility of future elections, but also enable the IEC to carry them out over several days instead of just one. An updated voters list would allow the IEC to conduct elections in phases based on geographical zones, reduce logistical pressures, and increase procedural oversight and transparency. Such changes would also help the Afghanistan National Security Forces to protect election sites from the Taliban and other armed groups without overextending their departmental resources and staff.
Because the IEC plans to conduct district council elections for the first time, the third key reform is for the commission to adjust electoral operations for district-based constituencies. Government-related agencies should establish an updated list of district boundaries by mid-2015, which will facilitate fairer and more representative elections on the district level.
Fourth, in the longer term, Afghanistan’s electoral system itself must change. In 2004, despite strong recommendations from international experts to institute a system of proportional representation, which ensures strong and representative political parties, Hamid Karzai approved a Single Non-Transferable Voting (SNTV) system, which favors individual candidates. Encircled by powerful leaders of Islamic political parties, Karzai wanted to weaken these parties by alienating them from their constituents.
For this reason, Afghanistan’s legislative branch — made up of representatives who, in some cases, were elected with less than one percent of the vote — has remained fractured, dysfunctional, and unrepresentative of its constituents. The next parliamentary elections will be the third time SNTV is practiced in Afghanistan despite delivering the same ineffective outcome each time. A shift to a mixed SNTV-proportional representation system would increase political party and minority representation in Afghanistan’s national and local legislatures. For the Afghan government and international partners, this must be a long-term priority in the second phase of electoral reform after 2016.
In light of the 2009 and 2014 electoral crises, the tenuous nature of the current unity government, and the country’s ethnically polarized politics, Afghanistan’s stability depends on better-functioning, more legitimate electoral bodies. The West must urge the current unity government to remain committed to implementing the necessary reforms prior to and after the 2016 Loya Jirga convenes. This is the single most important way to support Afghanistan’s decades-long struggle for democracy.
Tabish Forugh is former chief of staff of the Independent Election Committee of Afghanistan. He is currently a Reagan Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C.
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