Electoral Systems and Spectres: The Outlook for Governance in Afghanistan

The withdrawal of ISAF forces from Afghanistan draws ever closer, yet the goal of establishing stable government and rule of law over the country remains elusive. Despite the efforts of both Afghans and the international community, it seems as though the latter will be leaving behind a fledgling democracy, but one that is very weak in a dangerous environment.

Image courtesy Graeme Wood © 2009. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy Graeme Wood © 2009. Some rights reserved.

Establishing a functioning representative democracy is not the be all and end all of dealing with the problems of governing Afghanistan. While most international development and democratisation experts would stress this point, it has been a crucial aim of ISAF to ensure that the country does not suffer a power vacuum similar to the one that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1988 and allowed the Taliban to seize power. While many of the difficulties remain the same, Western-led intervention may have also unwittingly contributed to the list of problems faced in governing Afghanistan.

For starters, the security situation in Afghanistan is not encouraging due to the ongoing Taliban insurgency. The porous borders of the Hindu Kush coupled with the growth of the Taliban in Pakistan have also created a sanctuary for many of its fighters to train and procure equipment. Questions have also been raised about the readiness of Afghanistan’s own security forces after complete withdrawal of ISAF. Indeed, one visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Gilles Dorronsoro has gone so far as to say that once troops withdraw, it is likely that the Taliban will rack up more victories in the face of ‘the dysfunction of the Afghan state.’[i] In the weeks before the 2014 presidential election, the Taliban launched an attack on the Independent Election Commission near the capital.[ii] While unsuccessful, such attacks remain common, and this one is particularly symbolic given its timing.

Security and presidential elections aside, the electoral system used to elect the two hundred and forty-nine members of the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of parliament) is also a cause for concern. The Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) is designed to give strong proportional and geographical representation across Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. However, Andrew Reynolds, an expert on constitutional design, conflict, and electoral systems has claimed that the system has had unintended consequences. He stated in 2005 that while the large numbers of candidates for each district is a good idea in principle, it has led to very small margins of victory. This sees seats change hands frequently, and narrow margins increases claims of fraud and irregularity.[iii] Indeed, only one candidate won with over fifteen percent of the vote in 2010 and an estimated 1.3 million ballots were invalidated.

Reynolds was initially involved in the discussion amongst the international community about which proportional electoral system should be implemented. He reveals that SNTV was not actually the first choice for Afghanistan, and it was only picked after the Afghan legal advisor chosen to present the preferred Closed List allegedly bungled his presentation. This apparent miscommunication enabled opponents of closed list PR to prevent its implementation. Rather than choose one of their own to present it, the international community’s desire to show local ownership of the process has curtailed the effectiveness of democratic politics in the country. The SNTV was chosen as the next best alternative, despite not being the best system, and this will have serious ramifications on the future of Afghanistan as a result.

The way in which the international community has sought to guide the creation of democratic politics in Afghanistan, while done with good intentions and a much more careful analysis of the socio-political context of the country than Iraq, has been unsuccessful. It also seems that the current Afghan legislature seeks to undo much of the work done to improve the rights and opportunities of women in the country. For example, analysts, activists, and commentators have denounced new laws and amendments proposed to current legislation regarding domestic abuse as part of a “broader pattern of attacks” on women’s rights[iv]. Many of the policy initiatives to improve the situation for Afghan women were first discussed outside the country in Brussels and Berlin, ignoring the sizeable conservative opposition to such reform within the country.

Much to the chagrin of conservatives, women are also guaranteed representation in the Wolesi Jirga, which has seen women win seats despite gaining fewer votes than their male counterparts. This is a significant source of resentment for the current form of governance in the country, and will almost surely come under sustained attack in the future. The high-profile 2006 apostasy case of Abdul Rahman also reveals the tension inherent in Afghanistan’s constitution, an uneasy mix of a particular brand of Islamic law and liberal democratic principles.[v] Afghanistan may have some sort of democracy, but it is certainly not a liberal one in a conventional sense. Once ISAF leaves and the international community begins to direct its interest elsewhere, many in the government may believe that they no longer have to appeal to an audience outside the country. This could see longer-term international financial support restricted, which could only work to compound the difficulties faced.

Furthermore, the question of how much Afghanistan has changed can apparently be answered partly by looking at those sitting alongside the religious conservatives and women in the parliament. Andrew Reynolds has also highlighted statistics drawn up by civil society groups in the country after the 2005 election that suggest only a little has changed. After the 2005 election, forty representatives were still linked to militias, twenty-four gang members, nineteen facing war crimes charges, and seventeen drug traffickers. Such figures certainly gives a different meaning to the term ‘special interest group’. Given the tribalism and illiteracy across much of the country, local strongmen also have the advantage over newer entrants into Afghan politics.

Not only have some critics noted that these sorts of candidates will look out for their own group interests,[vi] they have the local networks and reputation to improve their chances of winning votes and mobilising their support much more effectively. In a large field of candidates, this is a considerable advantage in most regions. Alongside the spectre of the Taliban, the spectre of the warlord still looms large over Afghan politics. Regrettably it is premature to suggest that all of those participating in elections have bought in fully to the new democratic system.

For all the international and Afghan-based efforts to try and stabilise the governance of the country and improve its socio-economic outlook, it does seem as though governing Afghanistan will continue to be a difficult and costly affair. The withdrawal of Western-led forces will simultaneously reveal how little has changed, and also the weaknesses of the new system of governance put into place. The floodgates will not open overnight, but they are very fragile and should have been given even more care and attention than they have so far received.

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