The South Asia Channel

Perspectives on Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections

In light of Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections, scheduled to take place September 18, the AfPak Channel has solicited takes from several journalists, observers, and experts on what the new round of voting means for Afghanistan. Anand Gopal When discussing the upcoming elections with locals in Uruzgan province, one man gets repeatedly mentioned as the most important ...


In light of Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections, scheduled to take place September 18, the AfPak Channel has solicited takes from several journalists, observers, and experts on what the new round of voting means for Afghanistan.

Anand Gopal

When discussing the upcoming elections with locals in Uruzgan province, one man gets repeatedly mentioned as the most important player in the whole process. Called rais sahib (roughly, "the boss") by many in Tirin Kot, he actually holds no formal position in government. Matiullah Khan, a thirty-something militia leader who controls a key highway from Kandahar to Tirin Kot, has emerged in recent years as the most powerful person in Uruzgan. Locals say that not a single major decision gets made without him, including issues relating to private investment, development and security.

Whomever Matiullah decides to back for Saturday’s polls will almost certainly win the seat, largely due to his power, prestige and ability to spread dollars around. Some government insiders say that he is backing Hajji Obaidullah, a prominent Barakzai leader, Hajji Qudrat, a local NGO worker, and Rubina Azad, a Hazara member of the provincial council for the three open spots. While last-minute jockeying could bring another name into the mix, what is most important is that Matiullah will now be able to project some direct influence into Kabul through his candidate choices.

This signals a larger trend in southern Afghanistan, where a new class of powerbrokers has emerged since the 2005 polls. Abdul Razziq, the young Border Police commander from Kandahar’s Spin Boldak, has extended his power and reach to the point where he is second only to Ahmed Wali Karzai in Kandahar and will likely have a number of representatives in the new parliament. In Helmand, governor Gulab Mangal has been building important links with foreigners and key regional players, making him one of the most influential governors in the country. Mangal too is likely to have representation in the new parliament, after spending great effort backing certain candidates (like Nasima Niazi). And so the biggest winners of Saturday’s polls will include not just the freshman lawmakers, but also the powerful men that back them.

Anand Gopal is a journalist currently based in Afghanistan, and the co-author of a New America Foundation ‘Battle for Pakistan’ paper on militancy and conflict in North Waziristan.

Alexander Lobov

With Afghanistan’s September 18th parliamentary vote fast approaching, the media has been overflowing with stories about how the poll will once again be compromised by a deteriorating security situation and widespread electoral fraud. This is rightly a cause for concern, but it also isn’t surprising, nor is it likely to have a great deal of impact on the near future of Hamid Karzai’s government or the ISAF campaign.

The flaws in last year’s ballot were widely reported, are considered to be deep rooted, and if the Obama administration’s current discussions on how best to manage corruption in Afghanistan are any indicator, these pervasive problems are not likely to go away any time soon. Also, with the Taliban and other insurgent groups emboldened by an increasingly nervy domestic polity in the U.S. and a strategic focus on reconciliation, any hopes that the ballot would not face interference from insurgents would be dreadfully misguided.

The real question is, what does this mean for reality on the ground? The answer is: not much. While corruption, particularly in the electoral process, could very well be damaging to Afghanistan’s democratic future, for now it is something that both the Afghan people and the international community have to live with. Also, while security is of course paramount to the success of any public ballot, there is no indicator that insurgent groups are capable of derailing the entire process. As long as attacks and security fears are limited, although regrettable, they will not cause the electoral project to be abandoned, even if they mean that voter turnout will also be limited.

At this point, hopes aren’t high and all parties are concerned with maintaining the status quo. As long as both corruption and violence are kept in relative check, the elections will still serve as a moderate PR victory and the country will continue on its present course.

Alexander Lobov is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. He blogs at The Zeitgeist Politics.


Gerard Russell

‘Mayoos’ is the word that my Afghan friends have used when I ask them about the parliamentary elections: it means disappointed, or even despairing.  They do not need to read analysts’ reports to see that Afghan democracy will not be enhanced on 18 September.

This is perhaps for two reasons.  The quality of the elections themselves is only one.  The other is the structural weakness of the Parliament’s lower house, the Wolesi Jirga, for which those elections are being held.  

Despite the efforts of some dedicated members, the Parliament’s attendance and its achievements have both been sparse.  On the rare occasions when the Wolesi Jirga has taken a stand, the executive has circumvented it using the Supreme Court or Parliament’s own mostly-appointed upper house.

Nor have parliamentarians engaged with their constituents as they should. I remember listening to firebrand radical (and Parliament member) Ramazan Bashardost, as we sat outside his roadside tent — itself a deliberate contrast with the luxury of other politicians’ houses — and heard him receiving the complaints of a group of Pashtun students from Nangarhar, who had been unable to reach their own local Wolesi Jirga representatives.  Bashardost dialed his elusive colleagues’ mobile numbers and then, when they answered, handed the phone over to their constituents. But the fact that these students needed him to be their intermediary with their own elected representatives may help us to understand why people are ‘mayoos.’

The Parliament’s potential to hold the executive accountable, though, is worth preserving.  Many Afghans fear, however, that these elections will see an end to it.  Let me leave the last word to an Afghan friend: "People were hoping that this election would improve the Parliament and make it stronger.  But they are now seeing that success will go to those who have most money to spend on their campaigns, or who have Government help. So the new Parliament will be even easier for the Government to manage."

Gerard Russell was in charge of the British government’s outreach to the Muslim world from 2001 to 2003. He is now an Afghanistan/Pakistan fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights.

Jed Ober

This election is a critical opportunity for Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) to show it has the ability to manage a credible and acceptable process and for the Government of Afghanistan to show it can provide the security necessary for voters to participate. Responsibility also lies with political parties, candidates and
their agents, and voters to reject the tactics which contributed to the flaws in the 2009 elections.

Much has changed in the electoral landscape since the 2009 presidential contest. Afghanistan’s election commission has instituted a number of improvements. Additional safeguards have been introduced to mitigate irregularities, the electoral calendar has been largely adhered to, and the list of polling centers was finalized well in advance of the vote. Perhaps the most encouraging sign has been the ability of the new IEC leadership to instill confidence in Afghan and international stakeholders in the institution’s independence and impartiality.

Challenges persist, however. An electoral law decree changed the makeup of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) and decentralized the responsibility of adjudicating complaints to 34 provincial offices. Whether the provincial commissions will have the capacity to process the number of complaints expected and whether the IEC will be able to implement its plan for a more sophisticated tallying process are two key factors that will affect the ultimate success of the election process.

What is certain, however, is that September 18 provides Afghans an important opportunity to participate in a process which can help build the culture of democracy necessary to ensure that elections remain the process of choice for Afghans to select their leaders.

Jed Ober is the Chief of Staff for Democracy International’s Afghan Election Observation Mission.

Caroline Wadhams

With approximately 2,500 candidates running for 249 seats in Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections, it is hard to predict the outcome of each race in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and what it will mean for the power and independence of Afghanistan’s Wolesi Jirga, or lower house.  Most Afghans and internationals believe that the Independent Election Commission, the lead organizer of Afghan elections, has made improvements since the fraud-ridden presidential and provincial council elections in 2009.  But enormous challenges remain related to the absence of a voter list, the overproduction of registration cards, a weakened Electoral Complaints Commission, the Single Non-Transferable Vote System, and the near absence of political parties.  Of course, the biggest obstacle is security, which has deteriorated dramatically from even a year ago.  No province is safe, and insurgents (and even candidates) are resorting to violence and intimidation in all areas of the country. 

The real question is: who will this parliament represent – the ordinary Afghan, President Karzai, or entrenched powerbrokers and warlords?  The view from the north of Afghanistan is pessimistic, with many Afghans expressing concerns that the parliament will serve as an office for self-enrichment, business advancement, and the expansion of personal power, rather than as a vehicle for helping average Afghans.  Their concerns revolve less around Karzai than the entrenchment of warlords and the continued neglect of the average Afghan, who has few means of influencing his or her government and holding the powerful to account for their abuses.  

But despite the insurgent night letters, assassinations, and unlevel playing field for parliamentary candidates, most Afghans we have spoken to expressed support for holding these elections.  They have not given up on democracy yet.

Caroline Wadhams is the Director of South Asia Security Studies at the Center for American Progress.  She is currently an election observer with Democracy International.  The views expressed here are her own, and do not represent those of Democracy International. 

Malou Innocent

One major issue being missed in the media coverage of the electiosn is that the Taliban have fielded candidates, while some candidates have made appeals to the Taliban. Much like insurgent group Hezb-e-Islami, which holds 12 percent of seats in the lower house of parliament (Wolesi Jirga), this tactic makes practical sense. The loose, decentralized Taliban movement recognizes that military operations alone are not enough to pursue its political ends; while on the local level, semi-autonomous operatives who wear different hats within society have an incentive to engage in the political process in a constructive way. While this development might weaken the strength of the more progressive elements within parliament, and may in fact do little to turn the tide against the Taliban’s momentum on the battlefield, it could be a meaningful way to integrate extremist elements into the political mainstream.

Malou Innocent is a Foreign Policy Analyst at the CATO Institute.

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