Many Afghans are still wondering what exactly they will vote for on Saturday, and whether all of them will. While despite all shortcomings, parliamentary polls will go ahead on 20 October, the originally – and very optimistically – scheduled first-ever district council elections will apparently not be held. There is no official decision about this yet, but the country’s election commission has stopped preparations for them. It is also open whether there will be a vote in Ghazni province.
Afghanistan’s election commission, the IEC, has suggested to the government (which has the last say) to postpone the district council elections for a lack of candidates. There are no district council candidates at all in 42 districts, no female candidates in 78 others and in 166 districts there are less or just the number of female candidates necessary to fill the seats reserved for women. In only 40 out of 387 districts, a sufficient number of male and female candidates have registered in order to allow competitive elections. The IEC thinks to hold these elections together with the next presidential and provincial council elections on 20 April 2019 would give some extra time to solve this problem.
The commission also suggested to split Ghazni province into three constituencies. Normally, each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are one multi-seat constituency. The previous parliamentary poll in 2010 had served this multi-ethnic province with a lopsided result. All seats went to the Hazara minority(which mobilised well), while the majority Pashtuns lost out – security did not permit a high turnout in their areas. To address this issue this time, the split was suggested.
Apart from these acute problems, there are several old ones. Electoral reform promised by the stopgap unity government that came into being as a result of severe disorganisation during the 2014 presidential poll that ended without a result accepted by the main contenders was supposed to solve those problems, but never came even near the mark. The only ‘reform’ done was changing the personnel of the electoral commissions (there is a second one that has to deal with post-poll complaints).
There is still no reliable voter list. There is no voter awareness campaign to speak of so far. There are grave doubts that the IEC inspection of polling centres really took place in many areas and whether the geographical spread of the centres reflect the spread of the population, so that there are fears of disenfranchisement. The rules of procedure of the election complaints commission has not been made more transparent – and after all it is this commission that decides the election outcome, with usually disqualifying large amounts of votes. Steps to alter the voting system to give a bigger role to political parties have been delayed until it was too late. And no one talks about the weather anymore, although usually in late October mountainous areas could already be cut off by snow, denying even more people their right to vote. Finally, we still do not have a census yet which should be the basis of everything election-related. Not to mention that the 20 October 2018 parliamentary elections are held more than three years after the constitutional date.
All this leaves serious doubts about Afghanistan’s electoral framework and about whether better elections can be held this year – and next year when a new president has to be elected.
Another big hurdle for general and representative (meaning countrywide) elections is, of course, the war. At least half of the country is not under control of the government, and the Taleban have already made clear that – in contrast to 2014 – they will not play ball again. The newly emerged local IS outfit has already repeatedly attacked electoral installations.
Not only the Taleban are a security risk. Local strongmen and candidates backed by them will use freewheeling militias to intimidate voters. Even the official security forces might again be not neutral. In 2010 this author observed how local police or army units faked Taleban attacks in order to evacuate polling stations and stuff ballot boxes.
There is another risk. Should this year’s parliamentary elections produce an aftermath of counting, recounting, adjudication and dealing with complaints onlyhalf as long as those in 2010 did, this will overspill into the preparations for the April 2019 presidential polls.
That all those long-known problems were not solved is not only to blame on the Afghan government but on their international donors’ insistence to hold elections in spite of them. The holding of elections – but not their quality – has long been used as a benchmark for alleged progress in Afghanistan. This year, with a an American president who has threatened to pull the financial plug on the country, this is particularly important to them. There will be a new donor conference in Geneva in November, and with no election even in 2018, the president might finally lose his patience. This would be disastrous, but not sorting out Afghanistan’s electoral framework will also be destabilising, in the long run. That’s what you call a dilemma.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)