Thomas H. Johnson – The Illusion of Afghanistan’s Electoral Representative Democracy

This is a guest post by Thomas H. Johnson, Research Professor and Director, Program for Culture and Conflict Studies, Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA (thjohnso@nps.edu). It is based on his recent paper  in Small Wars and Insurgencies.

On October 9, 2004 Afghanistan held a presidential election to replace the post-Taliban, transitional government that had administered Afghanistan since December 2001.  Nearly a year later, September 2005, parliamentary and provincial council elections were held.  This electoral sequence was repeated in August 2009 for Afghan presidential and provincial councils and in September 2010 for the Afghan Parliament.  The establishment of an electoral system and process was a key foundation of the Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions, or UN-sponsored Bonn Accords and Process.[i]

While the Afghan election process was originally greeted with great international fanfare and enthusiasm in 2004, it is now widely recognized, as suggested above, that recent Afghan elections raise significant and serious questions concerning the legitimacy and utility of the entire Afghan electoral system, as well as the “democratic process.”  Indeed a number of years ago the International Crisis Group (ICG) suggested that the “prolonged crisis over Afghanistan’s … elections has undermined [then] President Hamid Karzai’s credibility” and has politically isolated him.  The ICG goes on to posit that the Afghan election process “could plunge the country deeper into not just political but armed conflict.”[ii]  Things have not changed with the election of Ashraf Ghani.  Moreover, with long-delayed parliamentary and provincial elections scheduled for July 7, 2018 and the presidential elections scheduled for 2019, it is important to raise fundamental questions concerning the Afghan election process.[iii]

The 2009 Presidential Election

On August 20, 2009 Afghanistan held its second-ever presidential election.[iv]  Ostensibly 41 candidates vied for office; the most prominent of which were Hamid Karzai (incumbent Afghan President), Dr. Abdullah Abdullah (United Front candidate, ethnic Tajik, former Northern Alliance leader, and former Afghan Minister of Foreign Affairs), Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (former Afghan Finance Minister and leader of the Afghan diaspora), and Dr. Ramazan Bashardost (ethnic Hazara and former Afghan Planning Minister).  Each presidential candidate ran on a ticket with up to two vice presidential candidates.[v]

While some in the international community did not believe that the Afghan Presidential Election should take place at all, deeming it an “unnecessary risk to all involved,”[vi] Karzai insisted that the election take place as planned.   Arguments against the election were premised on the assumption that the presumed security risks involved in an accelerating Taliban insurgency/jihad were too threatening for a creditable election to be held; not only would the election require vast organizational efforts, due partly to the winter season, but also significant augmentation of security personnel and measures to protect the polls and participating population.  Threats to the population were apparently high since the Taliban had advised people to boycott the elections. Afghanistan’s Free and Fair Elections Foundation (FEFA), the largest Afghan observer organization, feared that the inability of local and international observers to monitor the elections in all areas of the country, especially the most volatile and remote locations, would negatively affect the transparency of the elections.  The foundation’s head, Jandad Spinghar, stated that an issue of concern for observers would be the problems associated with the insecurity and the lack of information about the importance and the role of observers in the elections.[vii]

Election Results

Though Karzai emerged as the eventual winner, revelations of countrywide electoral fraud by all presidential candidates stripped him of the majority 50% plus votes attributed to.[viii]  The ECC served as the key electoral watchdog, composed primarily of non-Afghan officials.   It was the ECC which exposed the extent of the fraud in electoral registrations and ballots, and which subsequently invalidated about one million or approximately one-third of Karzai votes in the presidential election, forcing a second round of voting.  The EEC investigated 600 of the most serious complaints and “sample audited” suspect votes at 3,377 polling stations.  It dismissed all the votes cast at 210 of these stations.  In the aftermath of the election analysis, the ECC determined that Karzai only received 48.29% of the vote.[ix]  On October 19, 2009 the ECC announced the completion of the audit process based on a review of the ballot boxes that had been quarantined by the IEC.  The investigation showed that no candidate received over 50% of the vote, and that a run-off vote was required to determine a winner. Karzai’s campaign team attributed the decision to foreign interference and hinted at not accepting the results.  This triggered a series of high-diplomatic negotiations, encouraging the candidates to accept the findings.  On October 21, the IEC announced that Karzai had received 49.67% of the vote and Abdullah received 30.59% of the vote.[x]

A subsequent run-off election was scheduled for November 7, 2009 but on November 1, 2009 Abdullah Abdullah withdrew from the race, making the presidential run-off a one-man race.  On November 2, 2009 the IEC declared Karzai as president-elect.

The criticality of ethnic voting preferences remains the single most important dynamic of the Afghan electoral process. Karzai was elected not only without a majority national vote; he also failed to garner any significant vote from any ethnic group outside of his own. Karzai’s claim that he represented a truly national candidate that had support across ethnic lines was not borne out by these results.  And just as we observed of the 2004 election, the 2009 Afghan Presidential elections was “belied by ethnic divisions, which, unless properly addressed, threaten to derail any long-term hope of a democratic Afghanistan.”[xi]

The 2010 National Parliamentary Elections and the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV)

During his address to the first session of parliament on February 20, 2010 Karzai laid out his plans for parliamentary elections in September, highlighting his goal to “fill the gaps” of the problems that arose during the presidential elections.  He affirmed his avowed commitment to address these issues by limiting the “interference by others in the election process,” promising to reform the structure of the ECC and “afghanizing” the election process.[xii]  As virtually all Afghans saw the international element as the only check against rampant corruption in a Karzai-packed commission, these efforts to try to deflect criticism away from his regime and onto foreign meddlers and agents fooled few Afghans and simply increased his own unpopularity.  Absent from his comments was any discussion of possibly the most important factor influencing the Afghan legislative elections – the single non-transferable vote (SNTV).

The SNTV electoral system allows multiple candidates to run for seats that have been allocated at a specified level per Afghan Province.   For the 2010 election, 2,577 candidates filed to run for 249 legislative positions.  The number of seats allocated was based on the total population per province.[xiii]  The SNTV electoral process allows one voter to cast a single vote for one candidate.  This results in a single candidate obtaining a very low percentage of the votes.  Indeed, many Members of Parliament were “elected” from their districts with less than one percent of the popular vote in that district.

The SNTV electoral system does not allocate seats by district but rather by population size.  Provinces with fewer seats than districts cannot possibly have representation for all their districts.[xiv]  Additionally, districts with larger populations generally have more political pull or influence than those with smaller populations.

664 candidates competed for the 33 Wolesi Jirga seats available for the province of Kabul and a total of 486,111 valid ballots were cast.  Muhammad Mohaqiq, chairman of the People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan and former Vice-President and the Minister of Planning in the interim government of Afghanistan was the leading vote getter just as he was during the 2005 election.[xv]  He received a total of 3.6% of the vote!  That a mere 3.6% of the vote could represent the most popular candidate as indicated by total votes received is disturbing, and has serious implications for Afghan “representative democracy.”  Overall, 21 of the 33 candidates elected to the Wolesi Jirga from Kabul (64%) were elected with less than 1% of the total vote in their district.

Conclusion

This analysis clearly suggests that Afghan elections as well as the entire Afghan electoral process is fraught with deep structural problems that ultimately undermine both the credibility and legitimacy of the Kabul regime.  The International Crisis Group (IGC) suggests that the “prolonged crisis” over Afghan elections “is paralyzing government and weakening already fragile institutions … [and] stoke ethnic tensions and could drive disenfranchised Afghans into the arms of the Taliban.”[xvi]  Moreover, the continuing election crisis as we saw vividly in the 2014 election is already deepening an on-going conflict between the Afghan executive and legislative branches.

It is particularly problematic that many of the problems affecting the Afghan electoral system have long been known by Kabul, the UN and the US, yet little has been done resolve these problems or to promote election reform.  It should also be noted that this analysis does not explore the broader and untested assumption that democracy and an electoral system per se are genuinely a source of legitimacy of governance, in the Weberian sense, in a country that has never known them and where literacy rates nationally hover around 10-20 percent.  Democracy is a political system, not something instinctive in human DNA.

This analysis does clearly suggest that legislative voting based on the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) continues to plague Afghanistan.  The goal of any electoral process should be to ensure that a representative government can be formed, but in the case of Afghanistan, the SNTV is significantly hampering the development of representative institutions.[xvii]  In addition, the SNTV system clearly distorts multi-seat constituencies.  The fact that almost all legislators continue to be elected with a fraction of the popular vote, many less than 1% of the vote, presents a variety of problems.   The mere fact that both the 2005 and 2010 Wolesi Jirga Elections witnessed winning candidates, nationwide, receiving an average of 35% of the votes cast suggests the unviability of the system as a means of expressing popular representation.  It results in a group of parliamentarians who are seemingly not beholden to anyone but themselves.  The simple fact is that these “representatives” may be virtually unknown by the majority of the population and may thus have no support amongst their “constituents,” a system reminiscent of the “rotten boroughs” of the British parliament before 1832.   In the final analysis, the Afghan electoral system takes the power away from the people or constituents and puts it in the hands of a nontransparent, personality-based politics.

The SNTV electoral process is a complicated process that can only work under ideal conditions.  Important factors in Afghanistan such as security, ethnic diversity, and gender roles all play a significant role making SNTV unworkable in the Afghan context, but the lack of a mature and disciplined (and officially discouraged) Afghan political party system in particular makes SNTV inappropriate for Afghanistan.   As suggested by the IGC, “the absence of disciplined political parties to carefully analyze prospects and to ensure that their votes are evenly distributed among candidates results more often than not in inequitable political representation.”[xviii]

Over the past hundred years and as suggested above, national politics has not been of much concern to the ordinary Afghan, who made decreasing the state’s influence at local levels his number one priority.[xix]   This constant deflection of central authority in the everyday lives of the Afghans allowed for traditional governing structures to remain and slowed their evolution into more modern structures.   As the central government fights to gain access to these local structures of governance, it has been met with increased resistance and eventual revolt.   This cycle has repeated itself over many different Afghan regimes using varying models of government.

The challenge now facing the current Afghan government is the daunting task of uniting the Afghan people while not repeating the mistakes of the past. And this all needs to be done in the context of massive government corruption and a continuing, significant Taliban insurgency wrapped in the narrative of jihad.[xx]  The tricky balancing act of fostering an overarching national identity without being perceived as privileging particular identities requires strong leadership and a willingness to challenge traditional ethnic, linguistic, and religious norms when need be.  Karzai and Ghani Administrations have seriously failed relative to this dynamic. Literacy and civics are the sine qua non of any democracy and Afghanistan is severely deficient in both.

Notes

[i] United Nations Security Council, Agreement on the Provincial Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the

Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions, 5 December 2001, S/2001/1154.

[ii] International Crisis Group, Afghanistan’s Elections Stalemate: Update Briefing,” Asia Briefing, No. 117, (Kabul/Brussels, 23 February 2011), pg. 1.

[iii] For a series of excellent analyses of Afghan elections by the Afghan Analysis Network, see: Martine van Bijlert , “Afghan Elections Dilemma: Finish before it finishes you,” August 31, 2014, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/miscellaneous/aan-in-media/afghan-elections-dilemma-finish-before-it-finishes-you/ ; Martine van Bijlert, “Polling Day Fraud in the Afghan Elections,” September 9, 2009, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/publication/aan-papers/polling-day-fraud-in-the-afghan-elections/ ; Ehsan Qaane and Martine van Bijlert, “Elections in Hibernation: Afghanistan’s stalled electoral reform,” June 17, 2015,  https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/elections-in-hibernation-afghanistans-stalled-electoral-reform/ ; Thomas Ruttig, “Elections (31): Afghanistan’s confusing election maths,” June 19, 2014, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/elections-31-afghanistans-confusing-election-maths/ Thomas Ruttig, “Pluralistic within Limits, but Not Democratic: Afghanistan’s political landscape before the 2014 elections,” https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/pluralistic-within-limits-but-not-democratic-afghanistans-political-landscape-before-the-2014-elections/ .

[iv] In addition to the presidential race this election also saw 3197 candidates vie for 420 provincial council positions.   For an excellent analysis of the presidential election see: Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°96, Afghanistan: Elections and the Crisis of Governance, 25 November 2009; and Crisis Group Asia Report N°171, Afghanistan’s Election Challenges, June, 24 2009.

[v] The selection of a particular vice presidential candidate was often aimed at ethnically balancing a candidate’s “ticket.”   For example, Karzai retained Vice President Karim Khalilli, an ethnic Hazara.  Karzai replaced his first Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud (a Tajik) with Mohammad Qasim Fahim, the powerful Tajik warlord, leader of the Northern Alliance and former Minister of Defense.[v]  Ironically during the 2004 Presidential election, Karzai dismissed Fahim from his ticket on the last official date for filing of presidential election candidacy forms and replaced him with another Tajik, Ahmad Zia Masood.

[vi] James Bays, “The Words of the Professor,” Blogs, Aljazeera, November 2, 2009.

[vii] “Violence to Prevent Observers from Widely Monitoring Polls – Afghan Expert,” BBC, July 21, 2009.

[viii] The Independent Election Commission (IEC) is a constitutional body appointed by the president to oversee polls. It is tasked with registering voters, running polling stations, and issuing election results.  The IEC is accountable to the Afghan parliament and population.  Members of the IEC are selected by the president, which has cast doubt on the commission’s independence.  On the other hand, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) is an independent panel that reports any findings of fraud to the Independent Election Committee (IEC), which under law must accept Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) findings.  It was established under Article 52 of the Afghan Electoral Law to investigate and oversee all challenges and complaints associated to the electoral process.  If an offense is found to have taken place, it has the right, under Article 54, to impose sanctions. The ECC can also review disputes regarding the eligibility of nominated candidates.  It is made up of two national commissioners and three international commissioners.  The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court of Afghanistan each select one commissioner; the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations appoints the final three commissioners. The provincial embodiment of the ECC is the Provincial Electoral Complaints Commission, set up in each of the provinces and composed of three Commissioners and one support officer.  During the 2005 and 2009 elections, the ECC required that at least one Afghan commissioner had voluntarily agreed with any finding in order to prevent the three international commissioners from abusing their majority to override the two Afghan commissioners.

[ix] “Karzai ‘Stripped of Outright Win’,” BBC, October 19, 2009.

[x] “The Situation in Afghanistan and its Implications for International Peace and Security,” Report to the Secretary-General, A/64/613-S/2009/674, United Nations General Assembly Security Council, December 28, 2009.

[xi] Thomas H. Johnson, “Afghanistan’s Post-Taliban Transition: The State of State-Building After War,” Central Asian Survey, Vol. 25 No. 1-2, (March-June 2006), pgs. 14-15.

[xii] Hamid Karzai, speech to first session of Afghanistan’s Parliament, February 20, 2010.

[xiii] See Appendix B for how the seats are distributed for both the 2005 and 2010 Wolesi Jirga elections.  The number of seats allocated is based on the total population. This is shown in Appendix C in a simple linear regression analysis of number of seats to total population.  The number of seats each province can have is important if true representational government is to be established.  In the case of Afghanistan the guidelines for this process have been established in Article 20 in Chapter 5 of the Electoral Law.  The law regulates the number of seats to each province is to be in proportion to the population size. Additionally the minimum number of seats for each province has been set at two seats.  If this occurs the remaining provinces in which extra seats were not allocated to shall divide the remaining seats proportionally based on population size. (Legal Frame Work: Laws and Decrees:Electoral Law, 2010).

[xiv] Astri Surhke suggests: “The Parliament was … weakened by an election law that introduced a curious and rarely used system designed to inhibit political party representation (the Single, Non-transferable Vote system, or SNTV)”. Astri Surhke, “Electing to Fight in Afghanistan,” Middle East Institute, April, 2012, http://www.mei.edu/content/electing-fight-afghanistan .

[xv] Mohaqiq received 13.2% of the vote in 2005 when he was the leading vote getter for the Kabul Wolesi Jirga positions.

[xvi] International Crisis Group, Afghanistan’s Elections Stalemate: Update Briefing,” op. cit., pg. 1.

[xvii] Afghan Wolesi Jirga elections were scheduled to be held on October 15, 2016; they were postponed, in part, because the lack of resolution concerning the reform of Afghanistan’s electoral laws. See: Mujib Mashal, “Afghan Panel Sets Election Date, Drawing Government Criticism,” The New York Times, January 18, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/19/world/asia/afghan-panel-sets-election-date-drawing-government-criticism.html .

[xviii] Ibid. pg. 5.

[xix] Ibid. pg. 168.

[xx] For example, see: Thomas H. Johnson, Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict, (London: Hurst Publisher and Oxford University Press, September, 2017).

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