Afghanistan’s Big Gamble
Parliamentary elections are supposed to be Afghanistan's first steps toward stable democracy. But the rules and logistics of Sunday’s elections leave the door open to violence, vote rigging, and political gridlock.
The outcome of Afghanistans first parliamentary elections in 35 yearsis anyones guess, but the significance is clear. Far more than last years election of President Hamid Karzai, Sundays polls will be a gauge of the country's democratic will. The results will have a tremendous impact on Afghanistans short-term stability and its democratic future. With a persistent security threat, logistical challenges, and a voting system that favors vote buying and bullying, the outcome of these elections will be a crapshoot at best, and at worst could be a Trojan horse of chaos. Either way, these elections will profoundly shape Afghanistans future and the fate of the first U.S. nation-building project launched in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The outcome of Afghanistans first parliamentary elections in 35 yearsis anyones guess, but the significance is clear. Far more than last years election of President Hamid Karzai, Sundays polls will be a gauge of the country’s democratic will. The results will have a tremendous impact on Afghanistans short-term stability and its democratic future. With a persistent security threat, logistical challenges, and a voting system that favors vote buying and bullying, the outcome of these elections will be a crapshoot at best, and at worst could be a Trojan horse of chaos. Either way, these elections will profoundly shape Afghanistans future and the fate of the first U.S. nation-building project launched in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Of course, Afghanistan is still not the most hospitable environment for casting votes. Twenty small missiles, armed and aimed at the small city in which I am working, were recently found in surrounding hills. There are rumors of night lettersflyers discouraging voting and threatening violence. Last week, the Taliban took responsibility for the recent capture and execution of a foreign worker, andit hasmade noise about targeting more foreigners in the coming weeks.
Kabul has assigned the Afghan National Police (ANP) the task of securing the inside and perimeters of the polling and ballot-counting centers while the Afghan National Army patrols the surrounding area. It sounds reasonable. But the reality is that while theANA is competent and professional, theANP is mostly a bunch of bandits in uniform.
The ANP officers assigned to the counting center in my province are regularly found sleeping on the job, missing from their posts altogether, or worse, robbing passersby at gunpoint. This is partly thanks to the local security chief, who is known to be involved in trafficking drugs and arms. The higher-ups are not much better. The provincial governor spent three years as a guest of the state of Nevada for heroin trafficking. Anecdotes from other provinces confirm that mine is hardly unique.
Even without the security challenges, the complex logistics surrounding this election create ample opportunities for vote rigging. Provincial districts are remote and hard to access. The province where I work has 189 polling centers spread throughout 11 districts. Four of these districts are solidly in Taliban hands, and several others have a healthy Taliban presence. Transporting voting materials to and from the polling centers will involve 120 cars, 52 jeeps, 25 trucks, 34 donkeys, and 4 helicopters. It will take about one week to escort material and personnel to the all the polling centers, and another to escort everything back to the provincial counting center.
One of the biggest concerns for this democratic project is the voting system itselfcalled a single, non transferable vote. In contrast to a winner-take-all voting system, where candidates form parties or coalitions to assure victory,candidates run as independents, and seats go to candidates in rank order based on their returns until the open seats are filled. Nationwide, there are about 2,800 candidates vying for 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament.
With so many candidates, name recognition will likely be the most significant factor in determining who gets elected. The top 20 percent of candidates could take as much as 80 percent of the votes, leaving the remaining 20 percent of voters responsible for selecting 80 percent of the candidates. In this scenario, in each province, a few well-known candidates will likely split 80 percent of the votes and the Joe Warlords to scramble for the scraps.
So, in a province with five seats open, its conceivable that the last seat could be won with fewer than 1,500 votes. Thats why vote buying and bullying are attractive options for candidates who can marshal their criminal resources. And weaker candidates have an incentive to invoke what election workers here grimly call the assassination clause. If your province has five seats and youre a weaker candidate, you improve your chances of winning by eliminating the competition. If youre number six, you take out number five. Things get worse if youre a particularly ambitious number seven or eight.
The good intention of including women in the political playing field could have the unintended consequence of fostering political division and instability. First, most women candidates are a lock to win, as there are only a few more women candidates running than there are seats guaranteed to them. In my province, for example, there are five seats to be filled. Forty-four men are running for three seats, and three women are vying for the two seats reserved for women. This kind of job security puts women candidates in a position to be politically uncooperative, especially with their male counterparts. Men, knowing that the women parliamentarians are virtually assured a seat no matter what they do, are in a position to be uncooperative or downright hostile to their female counterparts. Second, the easy victories chalked up by women are likely to invite resentment, especially by those over whom they may leapfrog. This places female candidates lives at risk, perhaps even more so after they take office.
If everything goes right and polling day comes off without incident and the results are not compromised during the ballot counting, the international community will have successfully spent millions of dollars on a high-stakes crapshoot. More worrying, however, than the fact that the election results are wildly unpredictable, is their potentially destabilizing effects on the Afghan experiment in democracy. When the elected members take their seats in parliament in November, the members will have no legislative experience, no guarantee of solid support in their provinces, and no party affiliations to inspire cooperation and guide policy objectives. Many will have links to the Taliban and opium trafficking. We are counting on good will to prevail, but that may be asking a lot.
Parliamentary elections were agreed upon by Afghan factions in the wake of the Talibans ousting in 2001. And they are being held now, in the face of considerable security and logistics challenges. The voting system Karzai insisted upon may not have been the best option, but its what we have to work with. Now that the international community has put Afghanistan on its back and carried it to polling day, it must keep its focus to ensure that the elections become the fledgling steps of a constitutional democracy in Central Asia. But we should not be wholly surprised if we find that we have pulled a Trojan horse through an open gate, inviting chaos through the very means meant to bring stability to this war-torn nation.
More from Foreign Policy
Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?
The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.
Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World
It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.
It’s a New Great Game. Again.
Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing
The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.