Oct 17, 2018 | 10:00 GMT

6 mins read

For Afghanistan, Parliamentary Elections Are Another Step on the Rocky Road to Democracy

An Afghan police officer stands guard after a political rally was attacked in Nangarhar province in early October.
  • The disagreements arising from this year's parliamentary elections will complicate Afghanistan's presidential election in 2019 and hinder the deepening of democracy in the country.
  • The Taliban will reject the elections and their outcomes as part of their strategy of painting the government as a foreign-backed entity.
  • The halting progress on electoral reforms in the short term means the "ethnicization" of Afghan politics will endure and lead to the same kind of gridlock characterizing the National Unity Government.
  • Success in Afghan elections will be incremental and can best be gauged by a decline in fraud from one election to the next.

For Afghanistan, the upcoming parliamentary elections will be a key test on its war-ravaged path to democracy. On Oct. 20, the South Asian country will elect members for most of the seats in the lower house of parliament. The polls were originally scheduled for 2015 but have been repeatedly delayed due to the inability of the National Unity Government between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to implement key electoral reforms. Because of this failure and other infighting, these elections and their aftermath will probably complicate the presidential elections set for April 2019. It is almost certain that candidates will contest the outcomes, and allegations of fraud will follow, all while the country remains at war.

The Big Picture

Effective governance is a critical factor in ensuring that the government of Afghanistan extends its sovereignty across the mountainous, landlocked country while consolidating its fragile security gains after 17 years of war. The Afghan parliamentary elections, however, will aggravate some of the divisions in the country's politics that have kept the National Unity Government fractured.

Voting and Security

This election will be Afghanistan's third parliamentary contest since 2004. There are over 2,500 candidates competing for spots in the lower house, the Wolesi Jirga, which has 250 seats. (The vote for Ghazni province's 11 seats has been put off until next year.) Campaigning began in September and preliminary results will be released Nov. 20. After filtering out 600,000 unqualified voters, the Independent Election Commission has announced 8.8 million people are registered to vote. Nevertheless, several key challenges remain. 

Undoubtedly, security remains the biggest concern. Seventeen years have elapsed since the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. Operation Enduring Freedom was intended to be a swift strike against the country's Taliban government for hosting al Qaeda, the perpetrator of the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States. But the Taliban remains a virulent force all these years later, as the insurgent organization's sustained assault on Ghazni province in August demonstrated.

Indeed, the Taliban have strengthened their ability to challenge the NATO-backed Afghan National Defense and Security Forces for control of key territories, especially in the rural hinterland, where isolating mountains rise above fields of opium and wheat. Recently, the Taliban have promised to disrupt the polling by launching attacks and have denounced the elections as a Western-backed sham designed to perpetuate an illegitimate government. On Oct. 14, the Taliban killed 22 Afghan officials in two provinces. But the Islamic State's local Khorasan chapter also poses a challenge. A potent if smaller rival of the Taliban, the group killed 35 people on Oct. 2 in an election rally bombing in Nangarhar, the eastern province with the highest concentration of the group.

Also, the first-ever district elections were also supposed to be held simultaneously with the parliamentary polls. These elections are part of the move to devolve power to the local level, especially given the central government's tenuous grasp over the countryside, where the majority of the country's population resides and follows informal governance structures. However, with a shortage of candidates for the majority of the country's 387 districts, the election commission has chosen to delay the elections until the April 20 presidential contest.

A map shows the ethnic and linguistic groups of Afghanistan.

Ethnic Competition 

At the core of Afghanistan's political instability is an unresolved debate involving ethnic competition, regional intervention and the structure of the state. With 42 percent of the population, the Pashtun and their many tribes account for the largest and most dominant ethnic group in the country. But they are outnumbered by the non-Pashtun populations as a whole, which include the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks. The Pashtun favor a centralized form of government under a strong president wielding sweeping powers to enable rapid and controlled political and economic reform. This, in their view, is the key to maintaining the unity of the country — under Pashtun rule. The non-Pashtuns favor a federalized model that hinges on a prime minister elected by the parliament who — along with provincial governors elected by the people — can function as checks on the president. The Pashtuns fear the decentralization model will erode their power, weaken the unity of the state and enable regional powers to have greater leverage in domestic affairs. 

To cut across these ethnic lines and to weaken ethnicity as a political factor, the country needs to encourage an ideology-based party system. (Additionally, strong political parties will strengthen the parliament and create a check on centralized presidential power.) Conversely, the halting progress on electoral reforms in the short term means the "ethnicization" of Afghan politics will endure and lead to the kind of gridlock characterizing the National Unity Government between Ghani, who is a Pashtun, and Abdullah, who is a Tajik.

Voting System Reforms

The electoral reforms arose after widespread allegations of fraud marred the 2014 presidential contest between Ghani and Abdullah. The United States ultimately intervened to broker a compromise agreement — resulting in the National Unity Government — but it also demanded changes to minimize future electoral challenges. Although the unity government passed a new electoral law, the changes are incomplete, because of intergovernmental squabbles, bickering within the government and the logistical challenges of executing such tasks during wartime. 

Two of the most significant reforms proposed by the Special Electoral Reform Commission include moving away from the single nontransferable vote and revamping the country's voter ID system. The single-vote system was initially chosen because of its emphasis on individuals rather than political parties. Parties are stigmatized because of their association with the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which staged the 1978 coup and brought in the Soviet army in 1979, and the various mujahideen-based parties, all of which are key actors in driving four decades of war in Afghanistan.

On May 3, Ghani attempted to begin the move to electronic IDs, which ran into controversy because of the ethnic competition driving instability in Afghan politics. The measure aims to improve the voter registration system by replacing the paper IDs, which are easier to duplicate and harder for the government to monitor (and helps explain why the country's election commission has distributed 22 million voter cards for an estimated 14 million voters). Abdullah criticized the campaign, saying it was illegitimate in part because the ID cards used the term "Afghan," which historically is synonymous with "Pashtun."

Ultimately, Afghan politicians will continue viewing elections as a zero-sum game, where defeat means losing access to limited resources, and they will continue to oppose electoral reforms. As a result, progress in Afghanistan and its elections will be incremental. The measure of success will be a decline in fraud from one election to the next. For now, to expect free and fair elections may be unrealistic.

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