Parliamentary elections and political responsibility

The crisis over the parliamentary election results has arisen from failure of national policy making. But Afghanistan requires a functional parliament, as this is the one elected national body through which Afghans of all communities can participate in the political process.  If there ever is a deal to end the Afghan conflict, parliamentary backing will be important in making it stick. But a parliament whose own credentials are dubious can neither confer legitimacy to peace deals nor conduct its routine business of checking the executive and passing legislation.  The President took the key decisions which led to the current crisis. The best hope for repairing the damage to this important national institution will be if the President takes responsibility, acknowledges that a political solution is required, and works with parliamentarians to build a consensus on convening parliament.

Objections to the2010 elections focus both on process and on outcome. The most controversial result is that from Ghazni Province. Eleven out of eleven seats have been won by Hazara candidates in a constituency where the Pashtun and Tajik communities claim parity with the Hazaras. The Hazara clean sweep in Ghazni is the main basis for claims that Pashtuns are marginalized, both in the new parliament and in the political order as a whole. The reason that it is so difficult to rectify the “problem” of Ghazni is that the Election Commission played by the rules in declaring the clean sweep. Broadly speaking, Hazaras, whose areas were secure, voted, while Pashtuns, whose areas were insecure, did not vote. Allocating the Ghazni seats to anyone but the winning candidates would make a mockery of the franchise. But a parliament in which half of the population of Ghazni province, as well as people from several other disenfranchised areas, consider they have no representative, can do little to advance Afghan pluralism. And so there is an impasse.

Inevitably Afghans ask whose fault this impasse is. Protesting defeated candidates have blamed Election Commission head Manawi, for sanctioning fraud and practising anti-Pashtun bias. They have also blamed the United Nations for endorsing the election results. However the main political responsibility rests squarely with the Afghan President. But the awkward results have occurred because of the decision to go ahead with elections in conditions of insecurity, using an electoral system ill-suited for coping with such insecurity. It was President Karzai who originally chose the electoral system, who adopted it by ordinance before the 2005 elections and who amended it by ordinance before the 2010 elections. It was also President Karzai who insisted on sticking to the constitutional timetable for the 2010 parliamentary elections, in defiance of many wise Afghans who argued that elections in the middle of a war would not work.

The Ghazni election result should not have come as a shock to the President. In 2004 I was part of a small group tasked by the President to provide him with technical advice on the implications of adopting the SNTV voting system. We worked through several scenarios to show how this system could produce unrepresentative results. We presented the President with a worked example for Ghazni, using plausible assumptions, in which Hazara candidates won nine of the seats. We had hoped that this would prompt the President to look at more reliable voting systems. However he was unfazed at the prospects of results which distorted the ethnic balance. The main aspect of SNTV which attracted the president was the way in which it weakened political strongmen, as popular candidates with a large personal vote bank would enter parliament alone, unable to transfer their “surplus” votes to allied candidates as happens in other voting systems which use a multi-member constituency. The problem with the multi-member constituencies which emerged in the 2010 elections was that where one part of a constituency votes and another part does not, the former grabs all the seats. Under SNTV there is no way of ring-fencing the seats of the places which are temporarily unable to vote. Alternatives were available. For example, under the Pakistani system, with single member constituencies, in 2007 the Election Commission postponed voting in Kurram Agency and Waziristan. Their seats were not swallowed up by neighbouring areas. As soon as it judged there was adequate security, the Election Commission ordered polling in the delayed constituencies.

Other areas where there was serious disenfranchisement because of insecurity included Zabul (where those deemed elected all have a base in the provincial centre), Kandahar (where only the centre of the province voted), Badghis (where lack of voting in the Pashtun districts meant no Pashtuns got elected) and Nangarhar (where one of the leading tribes, the Khogyani got no representation). The problem of disenfranchisement is bigger than just the marginalization of Pashtuns. Candidates who only have a supporter base in the secure area round the provincial centre are ill-suited to represent a rural majority, even if they are of the same ethnic group.

Determining the actual extent of fraud in the 2010 elections is more difficult than identifying areas where people could not vote. The Election Commission has found itself in the position of having to pronounce on whether ballot boxes were filled with valid votes or stuffed at the behest of candidates. Under Manawi the 2010 Election Commission has been much more proactive than previously, refusing to open polling stations in areas where it could not supervise them and rejecting votes from suspect ballot boxes. However in making these decisions it has been accused of favouritism and a lack of transparency. Even more than in previous elections, Afghans have complained that moneyed candidates have succeeded in corrupting the process, using cash favours to buy polling stations and influence results.

There was nothing inevitable about the high level of alleged electoral corruption either. There were plenty of options available before the elections to reform the electoral apparatus and make cheating more difficult. However the President resolutely refused to acknowledge patterns of fraud in the 2009 elections and so it was little surprise that his administration made no significant contribution to mitigating this fraud for the future.  Government supporters are among those who now pay the price, as in 2010 some of them were victims of fraud similar to that which the government wished to ignore in 2009. A legitimate parliament requires an election system whose results Afghans believe.

It would help if those who insisted on going ahead with elections in the absence of security and without adequate electoral reform – the President and his advisers – acknowledged blame for damage to the parliament. This could be a first step towards consensus on how to go forward, balancing the interests of those who are represented by fairly elected candidates with those who have been disenfranchised by insecurity or fraud. Afghanistan requires a political deal which allows some form of parliament to get down to business as soon as possible. But for a lasting solution, what about electoral reform and a peace deal followed by fair elections?