Afghanistan: The Burden of Democracy
This is a guest post by Negah Rahmani, the writer can be contacted here.
The run-up to Afghanistan’s parliamentary election, held this Saturday 18th of September, has been reported internationally and has highlighted widespread inadequacies in the country’s government and its electoral system. When compared to the media frenzy that surrounded the country’s presidential elections last August, reporting this year has been diminished and focused on the many problems facing the ballot. Last year’s coverage of the elections, their importance to the reconstruction of the country, the significance of the act of voting to the population (especially women) and all such niceties were replaced by reporting of fraud allegations and corruption charges – systemic failures at every level – much the same as last year.
So why have the parliamentary elections not received the same level and type of attention? Is it a case of what FP’s Haring-Smith calls Afghanistan’s groundhog day or an overwhelming sense and realisation that maybe Afghanistan is a lost cause? And in the face of this systemic corruption can the international community be forgiven for perhaps not caring as much?
Firstly, A recent report by The Centre for American Progress conducted an in-depth analysis of the governance issues facing Afghanistan. The report concluded, that above all else, the country’s extremely centralised governing structure is in need of the most urgent reform. Karzai’s legal and constitutional powers make Afghanistan, “in theory, fiscally and administratively one of the most centralised countries in the world.” This amount of power has created a patronage system where Karzai flexes his influence through appointment of more than 1000 government officials at all levels of government with little public input. The paper reports, “Karzai appoints all national line ministry heads, the attorney general, Supreme Court members, the National Security Directorate Intelligence Head, provincial police chiefs and the national Bank chief.” Alongside this, Karzai appoints all members of the Upper House of parliament. In this system, all roads lead to Karzai, personal loyalties and patronage dictate electoral results and policy reform. This has set the tone for the corrupt system not only to be born but also to evolve, ensuring that those in power stay in power.
While the CAP report calls for more public input, some observers think that might just be the problem. Afghanistan’s constitution calls for several separate rounds of elections. Presidential elections (held last August), parliamentary elections to elect 249 members to the Lower House of Parliament (Wolesi Jirga) as well as provincial and council level elections. However, in the case of Afghanistan the elections are out of sync. As Haring-Smith writes, “there is an election nominally scheduled every year between now and 2027, except 2012.” In this cycle Afghans will be going to the polls every year for more than a decade. The Economist reported last year that over the next 17 years there will be 11 elections held in Afghanistan. And this is without the district-council elections being held on a separate cycle, as is proposed. In a country where the concept of democracy and voting are new to most people, this system can very quickly create voter fatigue. Reports from the ground already reflect this sentiment. The financial and security burden that these elections create is yet another concern with an estimated cost of $150 million for each election to take place. Afghans, officials and candidates face harsh conditions, in some cases risk their lives to cast their vote. They might not think it worthwhile the 12th year in a row.
These aspects are but a few that form part of a deeply flawed system which has helped create the corrupt environment in which these elections will be held. A retrospective report on the extent of the fraud and poll manipulation of the 2009 presidential elections warns that although fraud will still be as rampant as last time, it will be less blatant. The report by Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) states that those responsible for the electoral fraud in 2009 have learnt from their experiences and will be more sophisticated in manipulating results. The report points out key systemic flaws which allow such rampant fraud to take place. In particular, the absence of a coherent voter registration list means that people register multiple times. Provinces such as Khost and Paktika recorded registration equalling 140% of the population last time. The report further adds that the problem of multiple registrations is well-known yet little has been done to create an alternative system. Perhaps more disheartening is policy reforms which further engrain and enforce corrupt and centralised processes. Since the last elections, new laws have brought the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), the UN’s election watchdog, under Karzai’s control. The new laws enable Karzai to appoint all five commission members while the UN can select two representatives. The new measures will curtail the role that the ECC plays in monitoring and investigating fraud allegations.
Under these circumstances the international community’s disinterest with the elections is understandable and not just restricted to the media. The international agencies and organisations involved in Afghanistan have scaled down their election monitoring activities considerably. According to reports by The Guardian, the UN has evacuated one third of its international workforce in Afghanistan out of fear of violence and attacks by the Taliban. The EU has cut its previous 120-strong observation team down to just seven and the Asian Network for Fair Elections down from 74 to 30. Although the results of the elections won’t be announced for a while, fraud allegations have already started pouring out. In these circumstances international observers can be of little relevance where they cannot effectively prevent or monitor fraud. If the forecasts are anything to go by these elections will not only be a further blow to the country’s aspirations for reconstructing a functioning democratic state but will also further affirm international sentiment that little has been achieved in Afghanistan.
Negah Rahmani is a student at the Monash Asia Institute undertaking a Masters in Asian Studies with a focus on Afghanistan and women’s rights.