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An unsatisfactory status quo

by Babak Khalatbari


Lots of candidates, no parties: a voter in Kandahar

Lots of candidates, no parties: a voter in Kandahar

In view of recurring election shortcomings, Afghanistan faces the choice of either fixing evident flaws or risking the collapse of its political system. [ By Babak Khalatbari ]

When Fazal Ahmad Manawi, the chairman of the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC), announced the official outcome of the recent parliamentary elections in late November, he described the vote as follows: “With all the shortcomings, it was a major success for us, the Afghan government, people of Afghanistan and our international friends.” Many observers do not fully endorse this assessment.

As critics point out, only 10.5 million people were eligible to vote – 7 million fewer than in the presidential election a year earlier. Moreover, there were allegations of widespread fraud. More than 5,000 complaints were filed with the Electoral Complaint Commission (ECC), which subsequently invalidated nearly a quarter of the 5.6 million votes cast, disqualifying 24 persons that had won parliamentary seats.

In the southeastern province of Ghazni, the electoral triumph of the Hazara minority caused some furore. The majority of the province’s population is Pashtun, but not a single Pashtun was elected. In Afghanistan, the provinces are multi-seat constituencies. Ghazni has 11 MPs, so the 11 candidates with the most votes were elected. It is implausible that there should not have been a single Pashtun among the 11 frontrunners. The final election result for Ghazni was still not officially announced in mid-December – ostensibly for technical reasons.

Even after the publication of most election results, moreover, the balance of power in the national assembly remains unclear. The reason is that political parties hardly play a role in Afghan politics. The vast majority of the 2,500-plus candidates entered the race as independents. Only 1.2 % stood as representatives of a party.

President Hamid Karzai says he can count on around 100 of the new parliament’s 249 members. Abdullah Abdullah, his opponent in the presidential election of 2009, claims to have around 90 supporters. The real balance of power will probably only be revealed when must approve the new cabinet.

According to an Afghan saying, a house will collapse sooner or later if its first stone is wrongly laid. This metaphor, depressingly, seems to describe the development of Afghan democracy. So far, there have been various ballots with many shortcomings, but most lessons were not learned. There are three crucial issues.
– The country needs a new register of voters because the manipulation of electoral rolls has assumed massive proportions. A nationwide census that included voter registration would serve to prevent electoral fraud in the future.
– The current electoral system is not in line with the principles of representative democracy. The single, non-transferable vote has not proved useful in multi-seat constituencies. The best-placed candidates typically receive far more votes than the last candidates that are elected in each province. In parliament, all MPs have a single vote, but some have their mandate from many more voters than others.
– Afghanistan needs political parties with distinct platforms. Otherwise, legitimate elections – and thus democracy itself – cannot gain a foothold.

Shortly after the results of the parliamentary elections were announced, Rahmatullah Nazari, the deputy attorney general, said that the IEC should have held back the announcement for another week or two until prosecutors had completed inquiries into allegations of fraud and bribery. It looks as if a conflict of interests is brewing up between the Attorney General's Office, the Supreme Court and the president on the one hand and the IEC and ECC on the other.

Afghanistan faces the choice of either correcting obvious flaws or settling for an unsatisfactory status quo. The first option means taking a painful but necessary step towards transparency, responsibility and good governance. The second option means stagnation and risking the collapse of the political system.