Distrust of electoral institutions haunts Afghanistan’s prospects of inclusive and credible elections as it embarks on another elections year.
In a bid to restore public trust and confidence in the democratic process, the election law of 2016 requires the conduct of new voter registration in order to prepare a polling station-specific voter list to reduce instances of electoral fraud ahead of the long-delayed parliamentary and district council elections, which are scheduled on 20 October this year.
The newly set up Independent Election Commission (IEC) formally launched the voter registration process – using the original paper national identity cards – on April 14 with the first phase scheduled to be completed on June 22.
A highly contentious proposal favored by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to fix the voter registration stickers on copies of the national identity cards put him at loggerheads with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The decision – made due to fear of Taliban reprisal against those who register to vote — came after four out of the seven IEC members rejected the proposal in an internal vote that roused Ghani’s ire. The president called them to a meeting at the presidential palace and asked the members who opposed the decision to resign.
As sense of panic ensued over the possible collapse of the IEC and fear that Ghani’s decision, if implemented, would set the stage for another fraudulent election. Abdullah rebuked Ghani’s interference in electoral processes. Foreign diplomats scrambled to contain the damage and encouraged Ghani to retract his decision.
Past elections culminated in deeply divisive results, as in 2009, 2010, and 2014, dealing a serious blow to credibility of democratic process in the country. The upcoming elections represent a unique opportunity to conduct a credible and inclusive election and structurally entrench democratic institutions in Afghanistan by developing a viable platform for enabling a shift from an ethnicity-centric manner of conducting political affairs in Afghanistan to one based around political ideology.
Moving forward therefore will require the unity government and its international partners to take practical steps on these priority fronts, which are important barometers of credibility and inclusivity for the upcoming elections.
- Duplicate-free and complete voter registries. For the IEC to meet the goal of credible and inclusive elections and instil voter confidence, it needs to be able to produce complete, clean and duplicate free voter registries of the eligible population – even if this may require pushing the election date back to Spring 2019. Failing to deliver on this task will jeopardize the entire electoral endeavor.
- Non-interference in elections. In the short-term, a new protocol between the IEC and different branches of the state, including Ghani and Abdullah, should be agreed to promote public confidence in the independence of the IEC. Any interference in the work of the IEC and the Electoral Complaint Commission should be deemed a criminal act.
- Election security. The security situation in an estimated 40 percent of districts remains highly volatile, posing a serious challenge for organizers. The IEC should be allowed to study and consider the viability of a rolling elections.
- Recruitment. The hiring process for election oversight should be merit-based, consultative, and transparent, with an emphasis on neutrality and credibility at the provincial level. The Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission could provide technical assistance at the IEC’s request and it should not assume the task of hiring, as it undermines the independence of the IEC.
- A role for Afghanistan’s international partners. The international community, particularly the United Nations, should play a vital role in reinforcing a fair, transparent, and independent electoral system, where the principles of mutual accountability to curb electoral corruption and fraud, based on the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework, prevail.
- Women’s participation in elections. IEC should take measures to facilitate women’s effective participation in the elections. Higher level of womens’ participation will provide more credibility to the electoral process and prevent the illegal practice of men registering and casting ghost votes on behalf of women.
- Investing in political parties. The IEC, the unity government, and political parties should agree on a mechanism for parties’ participation in the upcoming elections. This will help fix the state of Afghanistan’s fractious politics and contribute towards voter mobilisation and outreach, resulting in a higher voter turnout, less fraud, and an outcome likely to be accepted by the losing candidates.
- Engage civil society. The unity government and international community should support civil society organizations that contribute to election engagement and citizen oversight, particularly those that have strong constituencies among youth, women, and media in the provinces.
Rafi Fazil (@fazilrafi) is an independent strategy consultant and advisor who works for international organisations in Afghanistan.