By Chayanika Saxena*
The political journey of the post-Bonn Afghanistan appears to be all muddled-up. With the time running out on the National Unity Government (NUG) that was put in place with an ‘original mandate’ of two years, the political situation in Afghanistan, much like the situations that prevail in every other sector of its national life, is fragile at best, and bleak, at worst. Adding to its woes are a declining international interest in Afghanistan; peace-talks that have appeared to be non-starter from the beginning, and intensifying border clashes with Pakistan, all which have made Afghanistan’s present appear even more dismal.
In the midst of all that which is going wrong for Afghanistan, what has dealt a further blow to its political apparatus is the shooting down of the second Presidential decree for reforms in the country’s electoral landscape by the members of the lower house (Wolesi Jirga) of the Afghan National Assembly. Shooting down the recommendations that came from the Special Electoral Reforms Commission (SERC), the Presidential decree was expected to initiate reforms, among other things, within the structural composition of two bodies that are in-charge of executing free and fair conduct of elections in Afghanistan- the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) and the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC). Caught up in political dynamics, the little progress achieved on the electoral reforms’ front has not only left the international donors dismayed, but it has also impacted the political morale of the country in an adverse fashion.
Established under Article 156 of Afghanistan’s constitution (2004), the IEC, which is the country’s ‘election management’ body, is tasked with the responsibility to “administer and supervise every kind of elections as well as refer to general public opinion of the people in accordance with the provisions of the law”. On the other hand, as per Articles 64-65 of the current electoral law (2013), the IECC is an election watch-dog which has the authority of disqualifying votes on grounds that affect the freeness and fairness of polling, making it also the authority which has the final say on the election results which cannot even be overrun by the IEC.
Apart from the above mentioned functions, the mandate of the IECC vests it with the responsibility to hear complaints pertaining to the conduct of elections in Afghanistan. Dealing with complaints ideally through public presentation, the IECC in consonance with the IEC is expected to adjudicate over these complaints, deciding in turn, on the ‘freeness and fairness of the elections conducted’ at various stages.
Given the centrality of elections to democracy, the responsibilities shouldered by these bodies are quite immense, but whose execution has been dampened with charges of corruption and nepotism besides the delays that have held up their internal reform. It is important to note that the members who make it to both the Commissions are decided upon by the President who is given lists of hopefuls by a Selection Committee to choose from.
The IEC, at the top, is composed of the Chairman and Deputy and seven Commissioners and is currently led by Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani. The term-in-office to be served by this cohort is sixyears long. The IEC is run by an executive arm called the IEC Secretariat, which under the Presidential Decree on the Electoral Law (Article 8; 2004) is expected to appoint electoral officials at country, provincial, and district level for conducting free and fair elections in accordance with the guidance issued by IEC.
The IECC on the other hand was formally retained as an independent body (which was expected to be replaced with a Special Tribunal, whose definition and scope remained shrouded in confusion) following the passage of the Law on the Duties and Structures of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) on July 13, 2013 by Afghanistan’s National Assembly. As a body which was hitherto run by 7 members, of which two were international representatives, the IECC was given an all-Afghan make-up, reducing the strength of this body to 5 following the promulgation of this law.
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Similar to the selection process followed for the IEC, the members of the IECC are chosen by the President out of a list of (15) hopefuls that are kept to him/her by the Selection Committee. The Selection Committee in concern too was given a formal shape with the passage of the above mentioned law, and it currently comprises of: Speaker of the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house), the Speaker of the Meshrano Jirga (the upper house), the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the head of the Independent Commission on the Oversight of the Implementation of the Constitution, the head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, the heads of registered political parties with at least six members in parliament, and one representative from Afghan civil society.
Till 2010, the electoral processes in Afghanistan were conducted on the basis of a Presidential decree that was passed in 2004 when the Afghan Parliament was yet to be put in place. The process of formulation and reformulation of electoral laws; a process that gathers steam every time there is an election in Afghanistan reflects that the political system in the country is yet to find a perfect, comfortable fit in this socially variegated nation. And, while this almost-perennial tumult can be attributed to the sheer diversity of interests within Afghanistan, it also to a great extent reflects on international misjudgments. The add-salt-to-taste approach which is being followed in Afghanistan has not yielded anything, even as observers have maintained that a top-down approach in defining the country’s political processes may ultimately galvanize its domestic political dynamics, which if were to be left to their own devices, would have resulted in little.
A decade and a half has passed since the Bonn conference in 2001 had tethered the major international players with the thread of common commitment to rebuild Afghanistan. While the conditions in Afghanistan did improve considerably, but since it has been weaned-off some apparent international spoon-feeding, not much progress has been witnessed by the country in any sphere, with the internationally-brokered National Unity Government serving as an instructive case.
In the absence of concrete, fully transparent and accountable electoral laws, the outcome of the Presidential elections of 2014 could hardly have been anything but chaos. True to the Afghan spirit of ‘holding-on’, while the NUG was formed (but not without the intervention of Uncle Sam), it could not manage to get its house in order for long. Almost two years into its existence, it did not even have a formal appointee to the position of Minister of Defence; charges of partisanship rattled it, with rising insurgency and persistent regional interference adding to the mess.
Securing the government in place were commitments to reform the electoral landscape of Afghanistan, which was deemed by its Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah Abdullah was highly fraudulent and corrupt. Under the agreement that was signed between the two contenders – Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, and who are now the President and CEO of the country, respectively- electoral reforms were designated as top priority especially as they are needed to hold the Parliamentary elections in a free, fair, and orderly manner.
Besides the Parliamentary elections, the conduct of the first District Council elections that are requisite for the convening of the Loya Jirga as envisaged in the NUG agreement, too depend a great deal on the reforming of the electoral laws in Afghanistan which are affected by many shortcomings, particularly those related to the determination of electoral rolls. Since a vital part of the NUG agreement was to convene a Loya Jirga to officially incorporate the position of the Prime Minister into Afghanistan’s political system, and to do which, electoral reforms were necessary, the President of Afghanistan after months of delays could manage to put in place a Special Reforms Election Commission.
Mired in controversies from the beginning, especially over its membership, the SERC in its extended tenures had proposed 11 recommendations. It was reported that the President had given his consent to 7 of the 11 recommendations and had put them up for Parliamentary ratification in two lots.
As the Afghan Analysts Network reports, the first lot of recommendations included some controversial themes that touched upon 7 key issues including, (i) the cancelation of the existing voting cards, the establishment of voter lists based on voters’ tazkeras (ID documents) and the linking of voters to specific polling stations; 2) review of the polling centre distribution; 3) changes in composition of the Selection Committee for the electoral commissioners; 4) changes in the composition and tenure of the IEC by decreasing the number of commissioners and both decreasing and staggering the term of service; 5) changes in the requirements for the IECC commissioners; 6) changes in the composition of the Wolesi Jirga (an extra separate seat for Sikhs/Hindus) and provincial and district councils (25% women’s quota); and 7) the employment of school teachers and others civil servants as temporary electoral personnel.
The second lot of recommendations was weaved around characteristic changes in the electoral system of Afghanistan, and hence was fraught with greater uncertainty of approval and implementation. What was recommended by the SERC was a change in the template of voting in Afghanistan from the Single Non-Transferable Vote system to a Proportional Representative system (although what kind of PR system to be adopted is not very clear). Changes in the electoral constituencies, possibly their redrawing was the other recommendation that was put to vote, but both of which were unanimously struck down by the Wolesi Jirga. Here, it is critical to note that the Constitution of Afghanistan vide Article 109 does not permit the National Assembly to make any changes in the electoral law during the last year of the legislative term. The Wolesi Jirga is already living on extension; that which was extended twice since June 2015.
As the much-needed electoral reforms in Afghanistan continue to face resistance from different quarters, the Parliamentary and District Council elections that are due in coming October will be conducted under the same provisions, same guidelines and the same Commissions- all of which have been called ‘fraudulent’ by the CEO camp. The people of Afghanistan who have been fed with success stories of democracy are waiting impatiently for the winds of political change to sweep through their land. Before all hope is lost, it will be crucial for the political class in Afghanistan to look beyond petty rivalries and interest and sit down to shape the future of their country collectively.
*Chayanika Saxena is a Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. She can be reached at: [email protected]