Currently, all eyes are on the Afghan government as to whether or not it will be able to deliver on its promise of providing free and fair parliamentary and district elections, currently scheduled for July 7, 2018. This past week has been a turbulent period, with President Ashraf Ghani sacking the chairman of the influential Independent Elections Commission (IEC), Najibullah Ahmadzai, after a flurry of criticisms over his performance. This development is the latest blow to the IEC, whose image had already been suffering due to accusations of nepotism during the hiring process, internal divisions, and individuals using their post for personal and political gain. Elections observers have nonetheless called on the government to expedite the selection of a new chairman so that the election process stays on course.
These issues warrant further investigation, as they raise questions on the credibility of an election process that has increasingly made members of the general public weary. However, with the election just on the horizon, a serious discussion on the very underlying structure of the electoral system is urgently needed. As warned by Barnett Rubin, “few people appreciate how electoral systems — as much as or more than voter intentions — determine the outcome of elections.” The current focus on the procedural shortcomings of the IEC risks overshadowing the bigger problems of electoral representation that plague the current system.
The core of the matter is the controversial Single Non-Transferable Voting (SNTV) system, which characterized the first two parliamentary elections. The motto of “one person, one vote” is powerfully simple, if not misleading. Under the SNTV system, each individual is entitled to a single vote. An electoral precinct — up until now, this has been the province — is allotted a certain number of seats, and the candidates that receive the highest number of votes will secure a seat in the parliament.
This voting system leads to several peculiar — and problematic — results. First and foremost, the system allows for candidates to win elections having secured only a very small number of votes. The results of the 2010 parliamentary elections are a case in point. In Kabul, where 664 candidates sought one of 33 seats, the top candidate Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, secured a mere 3.6 percent of the vote. At the 2017 Herat Security Dialogue, Professor Thomas Johnson presented his analysis of the election results in Kabul where “65 percent of voters [voted] for losing candidates.” In other provinces, winning candidates received as few as 2,000 votes (under 1 percent of the vote). With such a large number of candidates vying for a small number of posts, winning candidates end up being highly non-representative of their constituents. Furthermore, the nature of the SNTV system encourages voter buying and relying on ethnic votes, thereby increasing the likelihood of corruption and division.
Second, the SNTV discourages the development of political parties. One of Hamid Karzai’s central motivations for preferring the SNTV system, against the advice of international experts, was that it would ensure a weak parliament devoid of political parties. Elected officials may have no clear political platform, rendering them further unaccountable to their constituents.
This information, however, is not in fact new. Once of the central reforms to the new Election Law passed by the government in September 2016 concerns article 35, which tasks the IEC with the responsibility of dividing the currently parliamentary (and provincial council) constituencies into smaller precincts. Part of the motivation of this new law was to address a number of the shortcomings under the previous voting process, including the SNTV system. While many agree that reform is required, the best alternative remains disputed. A variety of possibilities exist. Under a single-seat constituency system (also called “first-past-the-post” voting), electoral precincts would cover smaller geographic areas than the current province-wide arrangement, with only a single winning candidate in each precinct. While the recommendation itself seems to address some of the confusion on multiple representations in the current system, it also could lead to problems of representation.
For example, if 50 candidates ran in a given jurisdiction, then the winning candidate may still receive well under 50 percent of the total vote (and could, under certain conditions, wield a vote count that is as low as 2 percent plus 1). Still, constituents would only need to hold one official — rather than several — accountable. Another alternative is a mixed-member proportional system, under which a certain number of seats in the legislature would be allocated according to political parties. Electorates are given two votes — one for their constituency and one for a political party. The political parties would fill the legislator in proportion to the number of votes they receive nationally. While the system is confusing, it could help smaller parties to win seats in the legislature even if they would have difficulty winning a particular constituency, thus promoting minority representation.
These and a variety of other arrangements are all on the table for the upcoming parliamentary elections. The single greatest threat at the moment is the clock. With each day that passes, the number of possibilities shrinks and the likelihood of a society-wide debate on political representation decreases. It is important to emphasize that civil society, more than any other sector of society, has a crucial role to play in the current discussion. Leaving the debate on representation solely to political elites poses a number of dangers. Members of the current legislature have all directly benefited from the SNTV system, and thus they are highly unlikely to serve as weighty critics. Even losing candidates and political hopefuls are mindful of how the SNTV system could lend well to strategic voting. Thus, a proposal on serious reforms must come from the outside — from civil society, activists, journalists, authors, and concerned citizens. The odds are certainly slated against these actors, as they are often uncoordinated, stretched for resources, and excluded from political circles. However, they present the best chance that the country has for a genuine overhaul of the current political arrangement, which could fundamentally alter the level of accountability, flexibility, and legitimacy afforded to parliamentarians.
With elections just over eight months away, now is the time for concerned individuals to tap into the intellectual and moral resilience that time and again has provided innovative solutions to some of Afghanistan’s pressing dilemmas. An optimal arrangement may not be found in time for July; however, an engaged civil society will ensure that politicians are kept in check and that eventually, whether in two years or 20, confidence is restored in the electoral system.
Nafay Choudhury is a Research Fellow at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies and a PhD Researcher at King’s College London, where his work theorizes on the relationship between legal and nonlegal norms in developing societies