As dictated by the Afghan Constitution, parliamentary elections must be held every five years and in official terms, June 22 of this year was the last active day for the Afghan parliament. The Ghani administration stated in June that an official date for parliamentary elections would be announced within thirty days following the cessation of parliamentary functions. Yet over two months later, the Afghan government has announced that parliamentary elections in Afghanistan will most likely be delayed for at least a year, citing the lack of technological infrastructure as well as political strife within the Afghan leadership as the primary roadblocks. Until then, the old parliament will continue to function beyond the date it should have ended.
The principal aim of the parliamentary elections is to elect the members of the Afghan House of People, yet the focus is on the reformation of Afghan electoral laws. Currently, elections are conducted through the single non-transferable vote system, in which each voter casts one vote for a single candidate in a multi-candidate race for multiple offices. Ultimately, posts are filled by the candidates with the most votes. Initially, the elections were to be held in April of this year, yet they were postponed over fears of security impediments as well as disagreement within the Afghan political leadership over how to ensure credibility.
This is a particularly bitter point within the Afghan leadership because of the disputed nature of the presidential elections held in 2014. Neither Ashraf Ghani nor Dr. Abdullah Abdullah was able to secure a democratically-earned position during the presidential elections due to widespread allegations of vote rigging from both of their camps. Both Ghani and Abdullah claimed to be winners of the election and ultimately a political agreement, brokered by the United States, was reached that resulted in the formation of the current Afghan leadership. It was agreed that Ashraf Ghani would assume the role of President while Dr. Abdullah became the state’s first Chief Executive Officer, a largely isolated and insignificant role.
In accordance with the deal, it was agreed that electoral reforms must be implemented for future elections, especially given the contentious nature of the presidential elections. The decision to allow the current parliament to stay active after June 22 was taken by President Ghani in consultation with the judicial, legislative, and executive branches. Little progress has been made toward announcing the date of the elections and only recently did President Ghani announce the postponement of the elections. One of the main obstacles to the holding of parliamentary elections is the continued tension within the Afghan leadership. Political rivals within the elite disagree over who should lead the electoral reform commission.
Although an election commission is now active, there were heated debates over the constitution of the commission. President Ghani and his supporters initially proposed that Shukria Barakzai, a prominent Afghan politician and a staunch supporter of Ghani, should head the electoral reform commission. In contrast, Dr. Abdullah and his supporters rejected President Ghani’s proposal because they perceived Barakzai to be much too close to the Ghani camp. Dr. Abdullah also opposed any individual or group involved in overseeing the presidential elections of 2014, since the outcome had benefited President Ghani. No officials from the presidential election commission have been charged or dismissed from their position, and the lack of judicial oversight has prompted Dr. Abdullah to call for total electoral overhaul, while the Ghani camp wishes to implement limited electoral reform.
Another major issue surrounding electoral reform is the process of voter registration. Afghans are currently not limited to voting in a particular region, thus they can use their 2001-issued voting cards in any polling station, which has serious implications on the credibility of election results. Furthermore, since 2001, approximately 20 million voting cards have been distributed yet there are only 12 million registered voters in the country. The distribution of extra voting cards undoubtedly cultivates the grounds for potential fraud during elections. By taking these issues into consideration, the electoral commission, which formally began its activities in August of 2015, has proposed the introduction of an electronic identity system during the voting process. This would reduce the risks of fraudulent voting, yet the implementation of such a system in a country which has a weak infrastructure and even weaker state institutions, could take years.
The failure to successfully organize and hold a parliamentary election is not only a momentary setback, but rather it has profound implications for the state structure in Afghanistan. The government in Kabul is headedtowards collapse and this largely stems from the fact that the executive branch lacks a constitutional mandate. The unity government was a product of a political deal that was managed by an external actor, not a government elected through a formal political process. As such, the key institutions of the state such as the Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office, and the Constitutional Oversight Office are all currently under the administration of acting heads of state who were not constitutionally elected.
In addition to the constitutional crisis within the administration, Afghanistan continues to face extensive security challenges which further destabilize an already fragile unity government. The Taliban’s “Spring Offensive” has proved to be particularly damaging to the country’s security forces, with regions like Kunduz being within the group’s grasp for the first time since 2001. The staging of a deadly attack on the Afghan parliament on June 22 (ironically the last day of the parliament’s session) only showcased the current unity government’s incompetence and impotence.
Kabul’s external relations are also insecure due to its inability to maintain domestic security. Afghanistan is becoming increasingly polarized as states like Russia, India, and even China perceive Kabul to be an unstable partner. The inefficiency of the Afghan government stems from closed-door political dealing between the different camps within the Afghan elite and external actors with absolutely no consultation with the Afghan people. The political contest between President Ghani and the increasingly insignificant CEO Dr. Abdullah to exhibit their respective political prowess has undoubtedly expanded the chasm within the Afghan political elite.
Afghanistan is currently on its way toward disintegration. The persistent economic stagnation, poverty, corruption, feeble state institutions, and the constant trauma of political violence are factors that actively feed state instability. No magic formula will address these factors in a short amount of time, but it is absolutely crucial that the Afghan government demonstrate to the Afghan people its capability to act competently. Because of the very fact that the unity government lacks constitutional legitimacy, it must implement electoral reforms in order to demonstrate to the Afghan people that democratic channels are actively pursued by the Afghan government. The unity government in Kabul must engage in a genuinely transparent and inclusive political process in order to prove their legitimacy to the people of Afghanistan.
Lema Ijtemaye is a graduate student and intern at the University of Waterloo.