The Middle Finger that Voted: Elections in Afghanistan
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By Chayanika Saxena

The Middle Finger that Voted: Elections in Afghanistan

Nov. 08, 2018  |     |  0 comments

In ordinary circumstances, a smiling face and a middle finger are hardly things one discusses in an article. But in an extraordinary Afghanistan, these gestures are symbolic of a moral victory. Painted in blue ink, millions of middle fingers did what we in India understand as a routine: they voted. Crossing many administrative, political and security hurdles, Afghanistan went to the polls, electing people to the lower house of the Parliament, Wolesi Jirga and the District Councils. Coming after three years of delay, these elections carried immense political and strategic significance given that they precede the Presidential run-off that is due next year and are happening against the backdrop of a new push for negotiations. But away from the macro implications they hold, these elections demonstrated popular faith in the strengths of institutional democracy.

The “New” Legislature: Of Power and Powerlessness

The journey to this end, that is, the successful conclusion of the Parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, had been both long and treacherous. It was made so by the structural and environmental constraints that affect the functioning of the legislature as an institution.

The 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan put in place a rather complicated system of governance with layers of structures that require routine elections and a voting system that is utterly complex. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is a Presidential, Republican Democracy with a bicameral legislature at the central level, and provincial and district councils at local levels. The constitution is evidently tilted in favor of the President who is at once the head of the state, primary executive power and the commander of chief of the Afghan Armed Forces. A strong executive presidency established by the current constitution (Articles 60-70) has significant consequences for Afghanistan’s bicameral legislature. This is particularly so as the appointments to the judiciary, amongst other positions of national and strategic importance, are made by the President and his/her cabinet and which makes two of the three organs of the government executive-centred. The flagrant use of legislative decrees further undercuts the role of the legislature as the highest law-making organ of the government. Consequently, in the last decade and a half, the role of the legislature in Afghanistan has appeared to be rather limited, if not titular, and has been undermined on various occasions. For instance, the Hamid Karzai-led government had made a full display of its executive power as it exploited “constitutional ambiguities” and a “beholden judiciary” to its advantage in former Foreign Minister Rangin Spanta’s no-confidence motion case.

Afghanistan’s legislature, which is also known as Milli Shura (Pashto), Shura-e-Milli (Dari) or the National Assembly, or simply the Parliament, is one of the only branches of the government which boasts a democratic legacy in the modern political history of Afghanistan. It is interesting to note that elections to the Parliament were not a new feature introduced by the 2004 constitution. Rather, the legislature was an integral part of the political structure right from the time of King Amanullah Khan and became bicameral under King Zahir Shah in 1964. In fact, the legislature had witnessed its first elections in 1969 and the new Wolesi Jirga will mark the 17th legislative term for the Parliament (dated from 1919). In its present format (Chapter 5 of the Constitution), the Parliament is composed of two houses — the lower house, or the house of people, Wolesi Jirga and the upper house, house of elders, (De) Meshrano Jirga. The lower house is filled by members who are directly elected by the people of Afghanistan for a tenure of five years. This 250-seat strong house is mandated by the constitution to reserve at least 2 seats for women in each of the 34 provinces (Article 83), making Afghanistan’s legislature of the most gender representative legislatures globally.

The Upper House, or De Meshrano Jirga is relatively weaker of the two houses in the Parliament. As no single individual can be a member of both the houses at the same time (Article 82), the membership to the House of Elders is determined separately. On the whole, this house is expected to be composed of 102 members, with three members elected/chosen from each of the 34 provinces. There are three ways of obtaining a seat in this house – by being elected by the (i) district council, (ii) provincial councils, or (iii) chosen by the President “from amongst experts and experienced personalities, including two members from amongst the impaired and handicapped, as well as two from nomads” (Article 84). An added complication to the system here is, however, the different terms attached to the offices of these three classes of representatives. Those appointed by the district councils have a term of three years; provincial councils’ appointees get four years, while the President chooses his/her members for five years. Elected for different tenures and by different bodies, it is interesting to point out that the district councils, which are responsible for a third of the seats in the Upper House, conducted its first ever elections on October 20, 2018 along with the Parliamentary elections. Consequently, the vacant district council seats in the Upper House were either filled by Presidential Decree (under Hamid Karzai) or were left vacant (under Ashraf Ghani).

Elections to the lower house of the Parliament are expected to happen 30-60 days before the dissolution of the house. Interestingly, the date for the dissolution of the house is already stipulated in the constitution, the 1st of Saratan of the fifth year, which is roughly June 22 of the fifth year from the inauguration of the first session of the (newly) elected house (Article 83). The voting system to be followed electing members to the Lower House of the Parliament is neither specified in the constitution nor in the electoral decree passed by Hamid Karzai in 2004. The only thing mentioned in both these documents is that the candidate getting the highest numbers of votes wins. The decision to use single, non-transferable voting system (SNTV), which is currently the method of voting in Afghanistan, was a result of a “process of random elimination than a studied analysis”. Apparently, SNTV looked like the “least bad” choice and served the political interests of then President, Hamid Karzai, well as he feared that the alternative, the Proportional Representation system, would have given more power to his opponents.

The fact that people of Afghanistan came out to vote, braving threats from Taliban that had vowed to disrupt this “misleading drama”, reflected that their exhaustion with the government and the administration did not chip at their belief in democracy per se.

Now, SNTV is an electoral system that is used in multi-member constituencies. Afghanistan happens to be the only country apart from Kuwait to use this method for electing members to its legislature. Under this system of voting, “each elector has one vote in multi-member constituencies. Candidates with the highest vote totals are sequentially awarded the seats assigned to each constituency”. As a system, it has been noted that SNTV tends to favor individual participation or very strong parties in the process. For a nebulous democracy like Afghanistan, where the role of parties is rather limited, this system of voting is far from being conducive for the growth of parties and associated mobilizations. Furthermore, it has been observed that the use of SNTV hinders the creation of a strong parliament as individual candidates are unable to forge strong political alliances, making it difficult to challenge the Presidential decisions and hold the executive accountable.

Apart from these structural challenges, there are other extra-constitutional challenges to the Parliament, such as attacks against the members and other staff of the Parliament as well as the actual compound. Where the MPs and other people have been on the target list of militant groups, particularly the Taliban, the building(s) housing the legislature have been attacked using different operandi including suicide bombing, (failed) penetration by militants, and rocket attacks. Not only do these take a toll on the lives and property of those associated with this governmental organ but they also severely handicap its operations and the conduct of the task that is most fundamental to its existence, elections.

The Long Journey from the Second to the Third

The first session of the lower house of the Parliament under the new constitution began in 2005. While the subsequent elections were to be conducted in May 2010, they took place a few months later to inaugurate the second term on September 18, 2010. This delay was nothing compared to what was to follow. The term of the now-dissolved lower house was set to end on June 22, 2015. However, the promise of change in the electoral laws made by the National Unity Government (NUG) delayed the election process by more than three years. The recently concluded elections did not, however, witness any fundamental shift in the electoral process as the system of voting could not be changed from SNTV to Multi-Dimensional Representation (MDR) System due to “limited time left until the Parliamentary elections”. The only major shift that was witnessed, although not without massive glitches, was the use of biometric devices for ascertaining voters’ identities.

Conducted over a span of week, 33 of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan went to the polls, voting for the Wolesi Jirga beginning on October 20, 2018. While technical troubles, and in some cases lax manning of the electoral booths, resulted in the voting process spilling over to the subsequent day, that did not mar the enthusiasm amongst the masses who turned up in large numbers to vote. Of the 32 provinces that voted on October 20/21, the Independent Election Commission recorded a voter turnout of 3 million, which is approximately 45 percent of the estimated electorate. Also, the IEC noted that 33 percent of those who voted were women. The total number of candidates stood at a massive figure of 2,677 of which 400 were women candidates. Many first-time contenders were also seen running for the seats, including two of my friends in Kabul.

The province of Kandahar, which had witnessed the assassinations of it Police Chief Abdul Raziq and head of intelligence Abdul Momin on October 18, went to the polls a week later on October 27 amidst a heavy military presence. On the other hand, Ghazni, which is the only province left to vote is expected to hold the Parliamentary elections at the same time as the Presidential polls, on April 20, 2019. The reasons for this delay have been attributed to the poor security situation there (the provincial capital had faced a massive Taliban offensive in August 2018) and conflicts over delimitation of constituencies.

Overall, the run-up to the elections and the days on which they were conducted were not attack-free. Three candidates were killed in pre-election violence, including the only candidate for the reserved Hindu/Sikh seat, Narinder Singh Khalsa. On the day(s) of the election, the Ministry of Interior reported having received about 1,700 threats, 192 security incidents in which 17 civilians were killed and 83 wounded. The ministry had also reported that 11 policemen (in Ghor) and 1 Afghan National Army soldier were killed while 17 members of the security forces were wounded throughout October 20.

But in the end, the fact that people of Afghanistan came out to vote, braving threats from Taliban that had vowed to disrupt this “misleading drama”, reflected that their exhaustion with the government and the administration did not chip at their belief in democracy per se. What the world saw was, hence, a sea of hopeful voters who chose to vote once again and not upend a nebulous democracy in Afghanistan. That they reiterated their faith in democracy reflected their political and civic maturity to differentiate between the government and the system and not let their exhaustion with the representatives rob them of their will to be in-charge of their future. In fact for many, these elections were an opportunity to bring about those very changes they have been demanding — accountability, transparency, and responsibility. Undeterred by threats, resilient and persistent in the face of glitches, the fact that about four million turned up at the booths to vote and gave space to young and new to stand in these elections were Afghanistan’s way of telling the disruptors and the political fossils to leave.

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