Afghanistan’s Elections Stalemate
Asia Briefing N°117
23 Feb 2011
This overview is also available in Dari.
The prolonged crisis over Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections has further undermined President Hamid Karzai’s credibility. He is now even more isolated politically than he was after his dubious re-election in 2009. The Wolesi Jirga was inaugurated on 26 January 2011, following a lengthy standoff that exposed sharp political fault lines, which could plunge the country deeper into not just political but armed conflict. Clashes between the executive, legislature and judiciary over the results of the polls are paralysing government and weakening already fragile institutions. Constitutional review is long overdue, and failure to implement changes that reinforce the separation of powers will only further weaken the state’s ability to provide security or good governance. If public confidence is to be restored, the president and Supreme Court must disband a special tribunal that was created to adjudicate elections complaints but lacks a clear legal mandate. The new parliament must also immediately place electoral and constitutional reform at the top of its agenda. If left unaddressed, the current political crisis will stoke ethnic tensions and could drive disenfranchised Afghans into the arms of the Taliban.
By the time Karzai returned to office on 19 November 2009, the destabilising effect of the flaws in the electoral system was readily apparent. Nonetheless, in the haste to push ahead with an ill-conceived agenda of putting an “Afghan face” on the transition process, international stakeholders, in particular the leadership of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), allowed Karzai to hijack the debate inside and outside parliament over electoral reform and to manipulate the political process. By insisting that the 18 September 2010 Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of the National Assembly) elections go forward, they backed Karzai’s ill-considered wager that an irrational system could somehow produce rational results.
The president’s 18 February 2010 decree on the electoral law was one of many unheeded signs that the parliamentary polls would likely end in disaster if not postponed. The decree sharply limited the authority of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), increased ambiguity over the role of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and created confusion over candidates’ right of appeal in the event of disqualification. In a rare show of unity, the Wolesi Jirga rejected the decree on 31 March. Karzai, however, bypassed the lower house, ensuring that the Meshrano Jirga (the upper house) essentially endorse the decree by voting to take no action on the issue on 3 April. Meanwhile, vetting processes designed to keep known criminals and members of armed groups off the ballot broke down, raising the risk of candidate rivalries turning violent. The Wolesi Jirga elections were thus held against a backdrop of heightened political tensions and deteriorating security.
Absent electoral reform, the result was unsurprisingly a repeat of previous election debacles. As in the August 2009 presidential and provincial council polls, violence and insecurity created tremendous obstacles for both candidates and voters. Election day violence hit record highs, leaving at least 24 dead. Insecurity left wide swathes of the population unable or unwilling to vote, particularly in regions where the insurgency has spiked, with many disenfranchised after the last minute closure of hundreds of polling stations. Systemic fraud, including intimidation and ballot stuffing, was witnessed countrywide, resulting in the IEC ultimately throwing out 1.3 million ballots, an estimated quarter of total votes cast. The ECC subsequently disqualified 21 winning candidates for electoral fraud, prompting losing candidates – many from Karzai’s Pashtun political base – to hold street protests and to press their case through back channels at the presidential palace.
Karzai’s politically calculated capitulation to the demands of losing candidates prompted a criminal inquiry into the conduct of the polls. Days after the preliminary results were announced on 20 October, the attorney general filed a broad indictment against more than a dozen senior elections officials and also against dozens of parliamentary candidates, after receiving information from the ECC about suspected fraud involving hundreds of candidates. The Supreme Court appointed a special tribunal on elections in late December. Tasked with investigating electoral fraud and corruption, the tribunal claimed it was empowered to annul the elections. The newly established Independent Commission for the Supervision of the Implementation of the Constitution (ICSIC), reportedly in correspondence with the president, rejected this presumption but never publicly announced its position. With the commission’s role as an arbiter of constitutional disputes still unclear, the president was free to seek other, more favourable interpretations of the special tribunal’s authority.
On 19 January 2011, at the tribunal’s request, Karzai announced that he would delay parliament’s inauguration by a little more than a month. The tribunal said it needed time to adjudicate electoral fraud complaints. Angered by the delay, more than 200 newly elected parliamentarians announced the next day that they would defy the president’s order and inaugurate parliament with or without him. Ultimately caving to strong international pressure, Karzai inaugurated the parliament on 26 January, but continues to abuse his authority by retaining the special tribunal. Although the tribunal has initiated recounts in several provinces, IEC officials announced on 21 February that they would not cooperate with the process. The dispute between the executive and the electoral institutions runs the risk of escalating violence at the local level at a time when ethnic tensions have never been higher.
The outlook for resolving the crisis, absent meaningful electoral and constitutional reform, does not look promising. It is unlikely that Karzai’s opposition will accept the special tribunal’s judgments. Nor will the dubiously elected parliament be viewed as legitimate. Karzai could be tempted to use the tribunal against his opponents, in a bid to bend the National Assembly to his will. As this briefing was published, fourteen election officials had been indicted along with dozens of sitting members of parliament. With the lower house also deeply divided over the selection of the speaker, Afghanistan’s government is in a state of near paralysis. The Wolesi Jirga’s call, in a resolution passed on 12 February, for the president and Supreme Court to dissolve the special tribunal, has increased the risk of an escalated clash between the three branches of government.
The international community and Afghan leaders must recognise the gravity of the current impasse. Karzai must heed parliament’s call to disband the special tribunal. The Afghan government as a whole must move swiftly to mend fragile institutions, to initiate substantial electoral reform and to adopt constitutional amendments to strengthen the checks and balances between the executive, legislature and judiciary. Provincial and district-level government institutions must be empowered to deliver services to the Afghan people. The president and parliament, with the support of the international community, should:
repeal the 18 February 2010 presidential decree on the electoral law and enact wide-reaching electoral reforms to broaden political participation, including by rationalising the elections calendar; removing barriers to political party participation; reducing opportunities for fraud by implementing district delimitation and cleaning up the voter registry; clarifying the authorities of the electoral commissions; and standing up a permanent electoral complaints commission.
Kabul/Brussels, 23 February 2011