The long-delayed Afghan parliamentary and district council elections were confirmed by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan to be scheduled for October 20, 2018, despite some major security threats, administrative issues and political challenges. According to Constitution of Afghanistan, the tenure of lower house of parliament (Wolesi Jirga) should end on 1st of June of the fifth year after the election. And new election should be held 30-60 days before the expiry of the term of the Wolesi Jirga. However, more than three years have already passed from the day when the current house had completed its tenure, no elections have been conducted. There are even doubt that the elections will be held in October.
Parliamentary election would be held for 250 seats from 34 provinces, in proportion to their population. Out of these 250 seats, 68 seats are reserved for women – 2 from each province – 10 are allocated for representatives of Kuchis (nomads) and 1 seat for Sikh minority in Afghanistan. The allocation of the seats in the lower house of parliament, however, remains controversial since there has never been any comprehensive census in the country. With no reliable data, the distribution of these seats will always give rise to ambiguities and differences. Moreover, Afghan governments wasted the chance of conducting a comprehensive census in the country when the situation was favorable for the process.
On the other hand, the parliamentary election is based on Single Non-transferable Voting (SNTV) system. The system is almost obsolete and does not encourage the development of political parties, that are main institutions that can promulgate democratic culture and process. Though on various occasions different political parties have demanded proportional system, the authorities and international community have not paid attention to their demands; therefore, the system has remained controversial and non-satisfactory. Independent Election Commission (IEC), itself, was not able to introduce any considerable changes, even though, there were promises of changes in the system and even election law after the controversies of 2014 elections.
With all the controversies and challenges mentioned above, Afghan government is preparing to conduct elections in October. As per the data provided by IEC, out of 30 million population of the country, 12 million are eligible to vote, and there are 7,367 polling stations across the country to facilitate these voters. However, there are ambiguities about the sufficiency and security of the polling stations. In some of the areas, it is very difficult that people turn-up to the polling stations and in others, where Taliban and Daesh insurgents have stronghold, no polling stations have been established. As per Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) report, only 56.3% of Afghanistan are under government’s control, which shows how difficult it would be to manage the polling stations and attract the voters to the polling stations.
Security challenges will also be there for the candidates, when they start their campaigns. As per the IEC ruling, candidates for parliamentary seats are allowed to campaign for 20 days before election day, and they are required to end their campaign 48 hours before the election day. However, campaigning for elections, even in the capital, would be a herculean task for the candidates and party supporters. This would influence the campaign environment and deprive the people of the opportunities wherein they can flourish their democratic behavior and culture.
One of the most controversial aspect in the preparation of the overall process has been the registration process. The IEC started conducting voter registration in April with the intention to prepare voters list based on Tazkira (National ID Card) and to connect each voter to one polling center so as to avoid multiple-vote registration. Nevertheless, the road it has traveled through has been bumpy, since IEC chose to travel through the same or was made to do so. It started with the controversy on pasting stickers on Tazkira as a proof of voter registration; however, that led to lower turn-out of people at the registration centers, because stickers on Tazkira meant clear proof of registration, which Taliban could also find out. Experiencing lower turn-out in the centers, the government, in desperation took two controversial steps: first, it extended the registration deadline in provincial capitals by a month; second, it allowed pasting the registration stickers on copies of Tazkira. Both the steps led to controversies throughout the country and even within IEC itself. Though the second step provided voters a chance to save their original Tazkiras from stickers and thus from proof of registration that may fall in the hands of Taliban, it, at the same time, paved the way for multiple registration and, thus, opportunities for fraud. Voter registration, therefore, quadrupled and it has now reached to about 9 million from just 2 million in May.
To be exact, the current number of registered voters, as per IEC, is given to be 8,918,107, which may now include multiple registrations as well. And, many of the political leaders believe that this registered number includes multiple-vote registration. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Hizb-e-Islami leader, has even claimed that the number of real registered voters is only 3 million, while the rest are fraudulent entries.
The only way, the issue of voter registration could have been easily solved was through the computerized Tazkira; but, the distribution of computerized Tazkira was also hampered before elections in various ways; and the National Unity Government (NUG) leaders, because of their differences, were not able to reach to any consensus to solve the issue. Computerized Tazkira could have solved many issues related to voter registration and the administration of database and the polling days. It was easier to monitor transparency as well.
The voter registration process was also influenced by insecurity that is prevalent throughout the country. Unfortunately, 86 people were killed during the registration process, 185 people were wounded and 26 people were abducted. It should also be noted that the registration process was carried out in the areas that were relatively secure.
With so much happening, there are doubts being raised about the IEC itself. There are questions about the independence of the Commission. The different episodes of termination of IEC senior staff members by President Ashraf Ghani and controversies among its own members have further boldened these questions. Recently, President Ghani announced Ahmad Shah Zamanzai as the head of the secretariat of the IEC. This appointment was deemed controversial since Zamanzai appears to have no previous experience in managing elections as he had served as the head of budget and finance board in the Ministry of Finance. In January 2018, President Ghani also appointed Sayed Hafizullah Hashemi as a new member of IEC, which followed the dismissal of Najibullah Ahmadzai in November 2017, who also served as IEC Chairman, and that of Chief Election Officer, Imam Muhammad Warimach in October 2017.
These steps and similar others gave rise to new series of controversies and validated the claims of interference of President in the affair of IEC. In true sense, IEC struggles to perform as a truly independent institution and, therefore, raises questions about the fairness and freeness of elections.
Another controversial step that came through IEC was the division of Ghazni province into three separate electoral zones on June 25, 2018. IEC, in this regard, revoked its May 20, decision of not changing the previous practice of ‘using the country’s 34 provinces as unitary, multi-seat constituencies’.
The decision was a U-turn by the IEC; at the same time, it raised questions regarding the decision only in Ghazni province. Other provinces have had security issues too, and the multi-ethnic composition is also present in them, but selecting only Ghazni for the decision could not help IEC escape the accusations of ethnic favoritism. It also accused the Commission of bending its knees in front of the protests that were based on ethnic sentiments. Some political pundits and Members of Parliaments (MPs) also believe that IEC’s decision to divide Ghazni is legally questionable and can further cause ethnic friction among residents of this province. Protests immediately followed the decisions, with the protestors blocking the opening of IEC Office in Ghazni on June27, 2018. With the controversies still unresolved, IEC has announced that the voter registration process in Ghazni will start on July 28 and will be completed by August 16; afterwards, the candidates can file their nomination papers from August 01 to 13, 2018. Nevertheless, there are clear ambiguities about these processes, and nothing can be said with surety that they will take place without any hindrance or unrest.
Free and fair parliamentary and district council elections in Afghanistan are significant, not only because of the democratic process in the country, but also for the stability of the political system and the future of peace and tranquility in the country. Nevertheless, because of mismanagement, misuse of authority, favoritism and the urge to display power, NUG, IEC and, particularly, the Presidential Palace have generated more controversies than solution in the process. However, it is never too late to mend. There are chances for the authorities to understand the challenges instead of avoiding them; therefore, they should avail them so that they can pave the way for solutions. From now on, if they dedicate their efforts to ensure free and transparent elections, they can, at least, pave the way for better presidential elections, which can then follow better chances of stability and political development. Though the prospects of perfect elections are only a daydream in Afghanistan, the possibilities of marking some essential changes are still possible; all they require is an honest and committed effort by the authorities.