The South Asia Channel

Strengthening Afghanistan’s Ballot Box

Almost one year after the historic power-sharing deal in Afghanistan that was caused by dysfunction in the electoral process, where does reform stand?

Afghan election workers count ballots at an Independent Election Commission office in Herat on April 17, 2014. Leading candidates in Afghanistan's presidential election voiced concern that voting was tainted by fraud after millions defied Taliban threats and turned out to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai. World leaders praised the courage of Afghan voters, who cast their ballots in force despite bad weather and the violent campaign of intimidation, and urged patience in the long vote count. AFP PHOTO/Aref Karimi        (Photo credit should read Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan election workers count ballots at an Independent Election Commission office in Herat on April 17, 2014. Leading candidates in Afghanistan's presidential election voiced concern that voting was tainted by fraud after millions defied Taliban threats and turned out to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai. World leaders praised the courage of Afghan voters, who cast their ballots in force despite bad weather and the violent campaign of intimidation, and urged patience in the long vote count. AFP PHOTO/Aref Karimi (Photo credit should read Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images)

Those familiar with Afghan elections often note the lack of substantive change from one electoral cycle to the next; election observation reports cite the same issues and recommendations for reform after each election. Despite the lack of progress in previous efforts, there is cause for optimism. The environment is ripe for genuine electoral reform and Afghans are eager for change.

Adopting reforms to the election system is critical for the National Unity Government given it is a key commitment in the Sept. 20, 2014 agreement that led to its formation. The unity government — a result of the highly contentious presidential election last year — was established based on an agreement between rival candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to form a parliamentary system of government. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry played a central role in brokering that agreement, making the U.S. government a key actor with a vested interest in genuine reform.

The agreement created the temporary position of Chief Executive Officer for Abdullah, the runner-up, and outlined a transitional process to formalize the new executive structure of the government

The agreement also called for an electoral reform commission to be established “immediately.” It took Ghani nine months, but he did ultimately appoint the temporary 14-member Special Electoral Reform Commission (SERC) through decree on July 16, taking a significant step forward. The individual members of the commission have their allegiances — a common reality with political appointments — but they are a qualified group for the task at hand. Chairman Shah Sultan Akifi has a strong background in elections and his ability to maintain the support of both government leaders will be invaluable throughout the process.

The president tasked the SERC to conduct an independent and thorough assessment of key election issues and develop short-term, medium-term, and long-term reform recommendations based on a widely inclusive consultative process. The SERC has been fervently working seven days a week since its inaugural meeting with Abdullah on July 22 to complete its mandate during the parliament’s summer recess, consulting with domestic and international stakeholders in Kabul and select provinces.

The commission is digging into some of the deeper issues, such as considering an alternative electoral system to the commonly derided Single Non-Transferable Vote system, as well as the lingering problem of an insufficient voter registration procedure. It is a promising sign that the recommendations are substantial and attempt to address fundamental deficiencies of the current system. The grievances with the electoral process have remained largely the same since Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban election in 2004, so the SERC has been able to use resources developed by numerous domestic and international actors over the last several years and not spend much time doing primary research or creating solutions to newly discovered problems. The SERC presented its short-term recommendations to Abdullah on Sunday who will review and pass them on for the president’s consideration. The short-term reforms are meant to be implemented ahead of upcoming — though currently unscheduled — parliamentary and district council elections. The president intends to adopt the reforms through decree before parliament is back in session on Sept. 6.

There is more political will in the current government to pursue substantive electoral reform than under former President Hamid Karzai’s administration. Ghani is in desperate need of a “win.” Afghans are increasingly discontent with how little the government has accomplished so far. Ghani made a few decisive, swift actions within his first weeks in office and put civil servants on alert with his shake up of the status quo, showing that his administration will operate based on hard work and results rather than complacency and corruption. Since these initial actions last autumn, however, a majority of Afghans believe Ghani has been too focused on international relations, to the detriment of domestic initiatives that can improve their livelihoods.

One of the primary challenges facing Ghani is the nature of his partnership with Abdullah, which is only loosely articulated in the unity agreement. The agreement calls for parity in the selection of nominees for high-level officials and for consultation with regards to other appointments. The principle is sound, but it has also been an obstacle to finalizing ministerial appointments, establishing the SERC, and making other key decisions that would lead to greater efficiency and better governance.

While he is a recognized ally of the electoral reform effort, Abdullah also needs district council elections to secure his position in the government. The temporary CEO position can only become the permanent prime minister as envisioned in the unity agreement if district councilors participate in a constitutional Loya Jirga. While Afghanistan’s current electoral law includes provisions for district council elections, Afghanistan has never held such elections. Therefore this undertaking would require some essential reforms, including settling district boundaries, developing a mandate for district councils, and establishing an operating structure. District councils would be completely new institutions in the country’s governing structure and would need to be thoughtfully integrated as such.

Not only is there heightened political will for reform, but also greater citizen demand. Afghanistan has a stronger and more vocal civil society today than during previous reform efforts. During the most recent 2013 effort, civil society shared recommendations and opinions with parliamentary committees responsible for revising the legal framework for elections. In today’s reform movement, the Afghanistan Civil Society Elections Network, an organized coalition supported by Democracy International, has been working to hold the unity government to its commitment to electoral reform through public awareness initiatives, direct advocacy with senior government officials, and ongoing consultations with the SERC to provide insight and support. Civil society has a seat at the table, helping to frame and lead the conversation. The government has even brought some civil society leaders formally into the process by offering them official positions, a serious acknowledgment of their valuable contributions to advancing democracy in Afghanistan. A leading example of this is the appointment of Sediqullah Tawhidi of the Afghan media organization Nai as deputy chairman of the SERC.

The SERC’s admirable work ethic and civil society’s engagement are encouraging, but Afghanistan is still only at the beginning of an electoral reform process and the transition Ghani and Abdullah promised in the unity government agreement last September. The most effective outcome will result from transparency and accountability. The unity government leaders should allow for a public comment period on the SERC’s recommendations before finalizing their decision and should not make changes to the reforms, especially not without consulting the SERC and explaining their decision to the public. When they review the recommendations this week and decide the way forward, they should be certain to do so with these core democratic principles in mind.

Faced with the SERC’s recommendations this week, Ghani will have the opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to instituting fundamental changes to the electoral system and thus, to the transition he and his once rival Abdullah committed to nearly a year ago.

The United States has a lot riding on the current electoral reform effort as well given its substantial investment in supporting good governance — and elections in particular — in Afghanistan over the last 14 years. Although the United States and other international allies have significantly reduced their presence in Afghanistan since last year, this is not the time for the international community to withdraw support for electoral reform. Rather this is a critical time to encourage and mirror the unity government’s commitment to a stronger, more democratic Afghanistan.

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

Naomi Rasmussen is a Senior Program Officer at Democracy International, where she provides support for election-related programming in Afghanistan.

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