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The Promise Of Ballot: Electoral Reforms In Afghanistan – Analysis

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By Chayanika Saxena*

Inaugurated after a series of bitterly fought battles, the formation of Afghanistan’s National Unity Government (NUG) was seen as a moment of relief by the international spectators and the domestic constituencies alike. The first democratic transition that took place sans the internationally beefed security, the countless allegations of electoral rigging had cast dark clouds of doubt on the prospects of political stability in Afghanistan. Yet, defeating the many predictions that were made about its collapse, the transition could take place successfully even as it was, and continues to be, attended by a lot of drama.

Opening with much revelry, it did not take much time before the fissures of rivalry became apparent again. What was expected to be a step in the direction of forging consensus in a country where ethnic chasms exist, the charm of this alliance between a Pashtun president and a Tajik (and Pashtun) Chief Executive Officer was gradually lost to stark inefficiency, corruption and political and popular disaffection.

Added to this are the diverging ideologies and styles of political management of those who preside over the network of administrative and political institutions and practices in Afghanistan. On the one hand where those in the Meli Shura (National Assembly) are often not on the same page with the executive, the twin heads of the government too do not have a good track record of coordination and cooperation to boast. Rather, the persistence of differences between the many organs of the government in Afghanistan has given birth to both political stagnancy and proliferation of parallel centers of power. Thus, where the many vacant berths in the cabinet of the NUG are evidence of the discord that continues to affect governance through ‘formal’ institutions in Afghanistan, the proliferation of the shadowy and the not-so-shadowy centers of parallel governance throughout the country is becoming a major concern for the country.

In the backdrop of such political and administrative deadlock, dwindling economic resources, deteriorating security situation and a resurgent Taliban, the introduction and acceptance (if only partial) of electoral reforms appears to be an attempt to set the things in motion once again. While it comes almost a year late and approved by way of a decree — which it seems is becoming the most favored tool in discharging ‘democratic’ duties, it is expected that seven of the 11 reforms that have been accepted will resuscitate the stagnating mechanisms of formal governance in Afghanistan.

Having arrived at the scene a little too late, the genesis of the electoral reforms has been a story of inordinate delays and quarrels. Stuck in a political quagmire that has since the inauguration of the NUG become the unfortunate political reality of Afghanistan, the electoral reforms that were touted as the most major commitment of those who came to power could not be effected until now. In fact, the very inception of the Electoral Reforms Commission took almost five months to pass through the Presidential Palace since the Ashraf Ghani-led government assumed charge.

Even after its institutionalization, the Electoral Reforms Commission was far from being in operation. From the date when the decree was given force on March 2, 2015, it had taken it almost three months to start gathering steam. Considering that the length of this Commission was not meant to be more than four months (excluding extension which had taken place subsequently), the fact that there was little (or no) activity on the front for which it was formed reinforced the dismal views that the performance of governance under NUG has gathered.

Affected by intense political acrimony, the composition of the now 15 member-strong Commission witnessed turf battles between the President and the CEO — a matter which is becoming (dangerously) usual in the politics of Afghanistan. Constituted by seven members chosen by each of the two political heads, the 15th member was appointed by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA). While the decision on representation was drawn largely on the lines of proportionality — with an equal number of seats being distributed between the two heads — it was the position at the apex of the body that became the source of feud within this setup. The climax of this struggle came with the nomination and subsequent ouster of Shukria Barakzai from the position of chairperson of the Commission. Having her affiliations with the Ghani camp, the decision to have her appointed at the helm of affairs of the Electoral Reforms Commission did not go down well with the CEO, who, as many reports have suggested was not even consulted before the decision was made. At present, the Electoral Reforms Commission is led by Shah Sultan Akefi.

Drumming up the authority issues further, the constitution of the Commission mandates that the accountability of its functioning and the proposals it furnishes will be with the CEO, with the final authority of upending and approving of provisions resting with the president. A seemingly apparent inequality between the twin heads of the NUG became another tipping point to which the functioning of the Commission was held at ransom for long.

As proportionality in representation degenerated into partisan participation in the Commission, the efficacy of its functioning was further dented by the responsibilities it was made to assume. These were to: (1) review the legislation related to elections, including the Electoral Law, the Structure, Authority and Duties of the Electoral Bodies Law (SAD Law), regulations and procedures; (2) review the structure and authorities of the electoral bodies and their terms of reference and (other) authority; (3) proposing solutions and policies with the purpose of creating transparency and stability in Afghanistan’s electoral system. What appeared to be many as largely advisory in nature, the role of the Commission was equated to blunt claws — there, but of hardly any use.

Held back on multiple counts of sheer political expediency, it was believed that the underlying factor which prevented the timely inception, operation and proposal of reforms was an overarching desire on the part of many in the political class to delay the conduct of elections to the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House of National Assembly). Uncertain and unpredictable, the politics of Afghanistan evades prescient descriptions, making even the strongest proponents of the electoral reforms — the Abdullah Abdullah camp — shy away from stressing on them even as they ordinarily stand the chance to benefit from it.

Despite these circumstances, the fact that the reforms could be proposed, and of which seven could muster the support of the president is certainly a big feat. These reforms include, (1) cancellation of the previously issued voting cards, (2) alteration in voting system where ballots could not be transferred into the parallel system, (3) establishment of transparency committee to review major fraud cases and complaints against the election organizers, (4) enforcement of new conditions for the membership of electoral commission, (5) allotting of one-third of parliament’s 250 seats to political parties, (6) the restructuring of (7) smaller delimitation of constituencies for effective balloting and representation.

Although the decree has a long way to go before it is promulgated as a law, but the groundwork for it has been set — if the Commission and the Presidential Palace are to be believed. And, while there are bound to be shortcomings in the approaches whose formulation took less number of months than the number spent in just getting the Commission institutionalized, these electoral reforms are expected to pave way for the conduct of parliamentary elections. Equally crucially, or perhaps more, the fate of the NUG too rests on the timely implementation of the proposed reforms, for its (official) expiration date too is not far in time anymore.

*Chayanika Saxena is a Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies. She can be reached at [email protected]

South Asia Monitor

South Asia Monitor

To create a more credible and empathetic knowledge bank on the South Asian region, SPS curates the South Asia Monitor (www.southasiamonitor.org), an independent web journal and online resource dealing with strategic, political, security, cultural and economic issues about, pertaining to and of consequence to South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. Developed for South Asia watchers across the globe or those looking for in-depth knowledge, reliable resource and documentation on this region, the site features exclusive commentaries, insightful analyses, interviews and reviews contributed by strategic experts, diplomats, journalists, analysts, researchers and students from not only this region but all over the world. It also aggregates news, views commentary content related to the region and the extended neighbourhood.

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