Restoring Faith in Afghanistan's Electoral System

flag of Afghanistan or Afghan banner on paper rough pattern texture
flag of Afghanistan or Afghan banner on paper rough pattern texture

Several months after the formation of the National Unity Government (NUG), President Ghani signed into effect a decree establishing the Special Electoral Reform Commission (SERC). Although SERC provided recommendation to the government of Afghanistan on reforming the Independent Election Commission, an incredibly challenging and sensitive task awaits the commission: reforming a heavily politicized commission that brought Afghanistan to the brink of civil war and state of collapse last year.

While the clock is ticking, the SERC's recommended reforms have yet to be implemented. The commission seems to have an open-ended mandate with no specific timeline set for their work. Conflicting loyalties of SERC members could serve as a critical ingredient for disagreement and prolonging the reform process in general. Disagreement over the allocation of 100 out of 249 seats of the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House) between members of the SERC was just one example, resulting in submission of two sets of recommendations and approval of seven out of 11 recommendations by President Ashraf Ghani.

For Afghan legal experts and political analysts, the [legitimacy] of certain institutions including the parliament and of the NUG is at stake if the Independent Election Commission is not reformed or if unnecessarily prolonged. Electoral reform is the underlying condition for parliamentary and district council elections and for convening the Loya Jirga to amend the constitution; provisions agreed by Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah while forming the NUG last year.

The Wolesi Jirga (Lower House) term ended in late June 2015 as stipulated in [Article 83] of the Afghan Constitution. By law, the National Assembly members are members of the Loya Jirga, the same principle applies to the Presidents of District Councils. Parliamentary and District Council elections were scheduled to be held simultaneously this year. With no dates set yet for election, the parliament with its expired term resumed its sessions on September 7th. The lingering question for many experts is whether decisions made by the parliament are binding, or carries enough political weight? No specific provision in the constitution explicitly anticipates the de facto situation and its handling mechanism.

Ratification of the Chief Executive Officer position through Loya Jirga is another major issue linked to the elections. For the Loya Jirga to convene, all members of the National Assembly -- Wolasi Jirga (Lower House) and Mishrano Jirga (Upper House) -- are required to participate [Article 110]. Without members of the National Assembly, Loya Jirga can't be convened leaving the status of the Chief Executive Officer position in a state of uncertainty. The CEO position will no longer enjoy legal basis, creating a political chaos that could challenge the legality of the entire government. An extension to the CEO position through a presidential decree maybe a sound proposition, but that is highly unlikely to be accepted by Dr. Abdullah Abdullah the current CEO, and a clear violation of the NUG agreement signed by President Ghani and his CEO.

Constitutional amendments can only be introduced by the Loya Jirga [article 111]. While the legitimacy of the Parliament due to term expiration is in a limbo, that could have a serious impact on the legitimacy of the Loya Jirga as well. In the absence of elected members of the Wolesi Jirga and District Counsels, experts and analysts in Afghanistan are not convinced that the amendment to the Constitution by the Loya Jirga could carry sufficient legal weight. While ratifying the Prime Minister position is the most significant justification for convening the Loya Jirga, there are not even guarantees for if such a position will be approved by the Loya Jirga members.

The kind of political quagmire witnessed in 2014 is likely to haunt Afghans again in 2016 if mitigating measures are not taken by the Afghan government. A specific timeline for reforming IEC and a date for National Assembly and District Council elections must be the highest priority, and announced immediately. Reform of the commission and preliminary preparation for the election should move simultaneously to keep political tensions at ease and restore pubic faith in the electoral system. The cost of prolonging the reform process could be severely damaging. It may also have an immediate and direct impact on the capability and political will of the NUG in saving the democratic institution and restoring the diminished public faith in them.