TOPICS > Politics

Parliamentary Elections Mark Critical Step for Afghan Government

BY James Yolles  September 15, 2005 at 4:30 PM EST

But despite the democratic progress, experts worry the lack of viable parties, a continuing insurgency and bitter ethnic division will hamper the nation’s attempts to build an effective central government in Kabul.

Nearly 5,800 different candidates are vying for 249 seats in Afghanistan’s National Assembly. International observers and American officials who have helped guide the transition from the Taliban’s theocratic government that was ousted four years ago hope the vote will instill more authority in Kabul and minimize the influence of regional warlords and tribal leaders.

“One would hope that over time, these bad elements will have their behavior regulated by virtue of being in the public eye and following the rules,” said Larry Goodson, a former adviser to U.S. Gen. John Abizaid and professor of Middle East Studies in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College.

Goodson said he favors a “dewarlordization” plan that accepts elected militia leaders into the parliament with the hope that they will adapt to the political system and govern “more as political bosses than those who control armed gunmen.”

“In general, this election is a positive. I’m hopeful it’s going to be overall a mechanism whereby [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai will be able to rope in the warlords, make them a part of the system and be able to transform them into something less malignant,” he added.

But the idea of bringing back these powerbrokers, many of whom have been accused of drug-running or atrocities against civilians, into the government has angered human rights activists and some Afghans.

“You have people who in any other country on earth today either would be running away, not allowed to run for parliament. You’re going to have killers, rapists, mass-murderers and absolute enemies of democracy sitting in parliament,” said Amin Tarzi of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The central government has taken limited steps to curb the influence of the most suspect candidates. The New York Times reported as of Sept. 13, 2005 that Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission had disqualified 28 candidates for violations of the election law — including 21 with ties to armed militias.

In addition to trying to ensure a slate of acceptable candidates who could serve in the legislature, the central government has struggled with issues of security and safety.

According to an August report from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, throughout the summer there were “escalating threats and attacks against candidates, election workers, civic educators, religious leaders, government leaders and national and international security forces.”

Careful supervision at the ballot box and in the vote-counting period, scheduled to begin on Sept. 19 and end on Oct. 9, with a 10-day post-election objection period, are key to controlling violence and sustaining a workable lower house of parliament, Tarzi said.

Despite efforts to weed out problematic candidates and ensure safety at the polls, experts have questioned whether the very method by which Afghans will vote could undercut the results.

Elections will take place in each of the country’s provinces and the number of delegates to the National Assembly is assigned based on the population of that province. Voters will select delegates for the 249-seat lower house using a single nontransferable vote (SNTV) system in which votes are cast for people, not parties. And according to the Afghan Electoral Law, which was revised in April 2005, at least two women must be elected from each province.

The SNTV party-free ballot system reflects an Afghan suspicion of political parties stemming from Soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban rule, according to regional experts. Karzai has ruled as a self-proclaimed man of the people, free of any party.

But election experts worry the limited role of political parties could hurt efforts to create a parliament that represents the people’s will.

Because parties are not listed on the ballot, many members of a similar party can run in one area and possibly skew results for the most popular parties, critics contend. For instance, if supporters of a certain party all vote for one candidate, the party may get only one seat while less popular parties may gain more seats, albeit with fewer votes.

A more organized party with less support could instruct its voters to spread its small number of votes to several candidates, thus assuring the party more seats, according to political analysts.

“I think there’s a consensus here that if they were looking for a system to be confusing and potentially to create a parliament that which is badly fragmented and very likely incapable of ever deliberating and legislating, they’ve picked the right system,” said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department analyst and currently a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute. “And in the direction things are going, it’s almost certain to produce a parliament which is going to be an obstacle for the executive,” he added.

“Without party discipline, to make votes go a certain way and set a legislative agenda, the parliament has a real danger of just being completely stalemated and unable to produce any reasonable outcomes,” said J. Alexander Thier, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a former legal advisor to Afghanistan’s Constitutional and Judicial Reform Commissions.

Despite the numerous obstacles, new parties that reportedly favor a democratic process have sprung up around this election. According to the independent Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, 72 parties had registered as of June 2005, but only 12 percent of those running for parliament had indicated a party affiliation. A newly created political party registration department has been set up in the Ministry of Justice to help the fledgling parties become more established.

If the elections do come off and a parliament elected, even seating a new assembly will pose challenges.

Kabul, a city that has almost no experience hosting a parliamentary body, will have to have facilities ready for the large assembly and support personnel with some level of governmental know-how.

“Even if the best possible parliament were elected for Afghanistan, they will show up in a situation that is virtually untenable for running their day-to-day affairs. These people are not going to know how to make laws and they don’t have a confident staff in place in order to do that,” Thier said.

Experts say citizens remain hopeful they will have the opportunity to show the world that Afghanistan is capable of democracy. In addition to electing the entire assembly, the September balloting also will decide part of the 102-member upper house of parliament.

These two legislative bodies, experts hope, will help unify a country still bitterly divided along ethnic and regional lines.

“Because of the way the constitution was negotiated, and the decision to create a presidential system in Afghanistan, a lot of the factions really felt that they were being given a raw deal,” Thier said. “And so the reason that the parliament is so important in their eyes as a sort of balancing mechanism is that this is the place where ethnic minorities will be represented in Afghanistan’s central government,” he added.

“It’s the wish and will of our people to have their voice heard on the future of their country,” Bismillah Besmil, head of the joint Afghan and United Nations election commission, told the Los Angeles Times.

Some analysts also acknowledge that the 2001 Bonn Agreement, which was intended to act as post Taliban “road map” for peace, called for establishing a representative government. These elections, the experts say, can be seen as a major development on the way to establishing that goal.

Goodson, who helped advise Afghanistan’s 2002 loya jirga elections, said that although there were issues with those elections as well, they helped establish Karzai as the nation’s leader, an important step for the burgeoning democracy.

“Before these guys go dashing around the track, we’ve got to get them through a lot of baby steps,” he said.