The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan’s Broken Electoral System

Months late, Afghanistan's Electoral Reform Commission has submitted proposals that aim to end the government gridlock. But are the recommendations too ambitious?

Election workers sort presidential ballots after a polling station was closed for voting in Kabul on April 5, 2014. Afghans voted in large numbers Saturday to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai in the country's first democratic transfer of power as US-led forces end their 13-year war. Despite Taliban threats, voting was largely peaceful with long queues in cities across the country as voters cast their ballots at around 6,000 centres under tight security.  AFP PHOTO/WAKIL KOHSAR        (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Election workers sort presidential ballots after a polling station was closed for voting in Kabul on April 5, 2014. Afghans voted in large numbers Saturday to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai in the country's first democratic transfer of power as US-led forces end their 13-year war. Despite Taliban threats, voting was largely peaceful with long queues in cities across the country as voters cast their ballots at around 6,000 centres under tight security. AFP PHOTO/WAKIL KOHSAR (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)

On Aug. 30, Afghanistan’s Electoral Reforms Commission finally submitted two proposals containing multiple recommendations to the National Unity Government for reforming the electoral process, following months of delay and political bickering. One proposal was developed by two members who boycotted the commission out of frustration, while the other came from the remaining members.

While each of the 11 total recommendations merits deliberation, there are two in particular that deserve in-depth evaluation: the mixed-proportional representation electoral system and the plan to establish single voters’ districts.

The first recommendation — which calls for a mixed-proportional representation system — allots one third of Parliament’s 250 seats to political parties, and the remaining two-thirds to minority groups (Kuchis get 10 seats, women get 68 seats, and Hindus get one seat) and independent candidates.

For the political parties’ third of the seats, the country is treated as an at-large, single constituency: all Afghans vote for the 250 vacant seats. For the remaining two-thirds, each Afghan gets one vote for candidates running in their applicable voting district.

This proposal can be explained as a notional constituency with nine members of parliament. According to the proposal, three seats will go to political parties’ candidates, and the remaining six seats are selected by six constituencies whose boundaries are drawn by population. Problematically for the political parties, the party’s size determines the number of seats it gets, and each party has to choose one of two approaches for their ballots: a closed list or an open list.

If the political parties use a closed list — nominating their candidates in advance — the voters (the majority of whom are uneducated and illiterate) will be in a difficult situation. Since the parliamentary and provincial councils’ elections are supposed to be conducted simultaneously, voters will have three different ballots: one for their relevant district council; one for the parliament candidates for their relevant district; and one for political parties’ reserved seats. Since the quota seats’ constituency is at-large, every voter across the country has to have the same ballot for the quota seats.

The number of political parties is unclear. But assuming there are 50 parties (an underestimation of the actual number), and each one nominates 83 candidates (the one-third of seats allotted to parties), each voter will have a quota ballot paper consisting of 4,150 candidates. This doesn’t even include the two other ballots full of candidates that voters will have. This situation would not only retard the voting process, but also create technical problems for voters and slow down the counting process, increasing the chances of fraud.

While a closed-list option comes with its own technical difficulties, neither the proposed closed-list nor open-list options are preferable from a legal standpoint. Article 83 of the Afghan constitution requires members of the National Assembly to be elected through a direct, general, and secret vote of the people. Introducing a mixed-proportional representation system — with a closed-list or open-list option — will lead to some members being elected indirectly, a violation of Article 83.

Moreover, the stipulation in the mixed-proportional representation voting proposal that only political parties that win three percent of votes nationally are eligible for quota seats in the national assembly is also problematic. Only parties that have a national constituency will pass muster.

With all of these drawbacks, why would the Electoral Reform Commission make such a recommendation? The philosophy behind the recommendations is to strengthen the political parties who have only formalized since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. However, the current situation is not conducive to giving political parties the privilege to have quota seats in parliament. According to the Afghan election law, passed in 2009, every political party must have representation from at least 22 provinces among its founders and have legitimate financial resources for its operations. It does not appear that any of the existing political parties fulfill this legal demand. Nor can a party be established on linguistic, sectarian, religious, regional, or ethnic grounds. But for the existing political parties, language and ethnicity remain their only currencies, and by-and-large, they have failed to come up with sound social, political, and economic agendas for the nation.

Currently, it does not seem as though political parties deserve the privilege of the quota. According to data gathered by the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission, only 1.27 percent of the candidates in the 2010 parliamentary elections ran on the basis of their political affiliations. Even leaders from some of the most important political groups did not campaign on the basis of their political allegiance.

The situation did not change in the 2014 provincial councils’ elections either. Only 7.63 percent of the candidates in that election ran on their political allegiance. While the number increased for parliamentary elections that year at the presidential level, the percentage of candidates running with a party was abysmal. Only one candidate nominated himself on behalf of a political party. Essentially, not a single candidate ran for the presidency on the basis of his political party.

Thus, reforming the electoral system is a necessary, but an insufficient condition for strengthening political parties. The political elites making these recommendations don’t want to be associated with particular groups, revealing that they themselves don’t believe in the strength of political parties to run the state. And the parties themselves need to adopt internal democratic practices as the transfer of power within parties is often hereditary.

Since Afghanistan is a new democracy and lacks the proper electoral infrastructure, it is more logical for Afghans to stick to a single, nontransferable vote system for simplicity’s sake, at least for now. This proposed mixed-proportional representation system is a complicated system that requires electoral infrastructure and additional resources, a more educated and literate voter bloc, and vote-counting logistics that are beyond the current electoral bodies’ abilities to carry out. It is unwise to replace an imperfect simple system with a more complicated one.

The other recommendation — an alternative scenario proposed by two members from the Electoral Reforms Commission who boycotted the body’s proposal — would be to convert the existing province-wide districts into single-electoral districts. Currently, an entire province serves as a constituency in the parliamentary elections for all the members of the relevant province. According to the proposed change, the number of male quota seats in the National Assembly will be determined through single-electoral district voting. However, the constituency for women will not change; the entire province will serve as the constituency for the female parliamentarians of the relevant province.

The proposed reform not only has technical and administrative benefits for the electoral body, but also lessens the financial burden for the candidates. Under the existing system, a candidate for parliament has to campaign throughout the province. However, in the case of a single-voter district, the candidate only has to campaign in the small part of the province designated as his district. The single-voter district system will also allow for greater accountability and voter participation. With single-voter districts, candidates’ few observers can easily monitor the process. The single-voter district may also increase civic awareness. Since the single voter districts decreases the area for the candidates’ campaigns, candidates will have the opportunity to canvas their districts at higher frequencies, increasing the chances for citizens’ to participate. This will lead to a more representative national assembly and increase the legitimacy of parliament and the system.

Proponents of the mixed-proportional representation system believe that it prevents the loss of votes. This argument is valid to some extent; however adoption of single voter districts also has the potential to compensate for the loss of votes.

While electoral reform is, itself, a political process, it needs legal and technical expertise. The National Unity Government needs to introduce reforms that are informed by technical knowledge and not on emotions and wishes.

WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

Archiwal leads OSCAR, a local NGO in Afghanistan and is the former Director of Public Outreach for the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission.

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