Democracy in Afghanistan – A Parliamentary Struggle
This weekend saw the long-awaited Afghan parliamentary elections, delayed several times since 2015. Since the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001 only three parliamentary elections have been held, all of which have been fraught with violence perpetrated by the extant Taliban forces and, later, the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant Khorasan Province, the branch of Da’esh which operates primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Terrorist activities directed at voters, candidates and electoral officials have caused a delay of elections in the province of Kandahar where, on Thursday, a Taliban attack targeting a meeting between American and Afghan officials discussing the upcoming elections killed General Abdul Raziq, the police chief of the province. As well as security forces, candidates have been prime targets for the Taliban, since they most acutely represent the democracy that the Taliban reviles so much, particularly female candidates who are running in record numbers this year. But to truly appreciate the importance of this election we must look beyond the violence, the tragedy and the sensationalism and focus first of all on the process itself.
Over 2500 candidates are vying for only 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of Afghanistan’s National Assembly, representing a plethora of political parties including: Jamayat-E-Islami, the country’s oldest party; the People's Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, a Hazarajat nationalist party; and the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, a party dogged by accusations of human rights violations; as well as independent candidates. But it is not merely among the candidates that more people than official positions exist. Indeed, around 20 million voting cards are currently in circulation despite there being only an estimated 12 million eligible voters in the nation. Voters were previously allowed to vote anywhere without identification, meaning many people could, and did, vote multiple times in different places. Attempts have been introduced this year to curtail such fraud, but the optimistic measures proved idealistic and ill-conceived. For example, one attempt to biometrically and photographically document each voter electronically was estimated, before voting began, to take a minute per person, but in practice the registration machines frequently ran out of battery charge and required plugging in, and officials on hand to assist lacked adequate training to deal with unexpected technological issues.
Despite issues of violence, voter fraud and machine malfunctions, turnout was relatively high at 45% as reported by the Independent Election Commission, up from 35.1% in 2010, with many polling stations remaining open beyond the prearranged closing times of between 4-6pm due to the delays caused by the mechanical mishaps. Female turnout was also unprecedentedly high at around 33%, reflecting the changing face of gender occurring in Afghanistan over the last several years. Due to the advancement of democracy, the relative safety of voters as compared with previous years and the increasing gender parity, the US could revise its plan to remain in the region, a move advocated by General John Nicholson, who flew back to the US in February last year to advise Congress on the need for troops to remain on the ground. Whilst the uncertainty has not dissipated, the success of the elections may be viewed by legislators as a step toward stability and a factor to consider in the withdrawal from America’s longest war. Certainly the United Nations Assistance Mission To Afghanistan is emboldened, having issued a statement affirming their faith in the elections and pleasure at their conduct.
However, not all is good news. In addition to Kandahar, due to hold elections later this month, the province of Ghazni also delayed its elections, though much earlier. This is due to a series of interconnected factors which mostly stem accusations of gerrymandering along ethnic lines, tensions exacerbated by the Taliban occupation the province underwent earlier in the year which, though now ended, resulted in bombing and fighting which is still ongoing. On top of this region specific issue, the widespread violence during the process resulted in over fifty deaths, though the real number is likely to be much higher due to the sporadic nature of the attacks, and over a hundred injuries.
The results of the election, scheduled to be released before 20th December, could go some way to resolving the tensions between the president, Ashraf Ghani, and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who contested the presidency back in 2014 but subsequently formed a unity government. The results of that election were severely contested, with many allegations of foul play, leading to the appointment of electoral overseers this year being a controversial and inherently political struggle. If the results of these parliamentary elections are seen as fair then tensions may abate before next year’s presidential election, allowing for a more secure process and smoother transition of power. But if the results are seen to have been heavily influenced by fraud or partisan repression, then the months of work undergone to promote democracy in the region may require serious redress in order to maintain progress.
[Photo Credits: Todd Huffman]