Afghanistan: From Presidential to Parliamentary Elections
Afghanistan: From Presidential to Parliamentary Elections
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report / Asia 4 minutes

Afghanistan: From Presidential to Parliamentary Elections

The October 2004 presidential election went well, and Afghanistan now has its first ever popularly elected president. But the parliamentary, provincial and district elections now scheduled for April 2005 will be considerably more complicated, and preparations are going too slowly.

Executive Summary

The October 2004 presidential election went well, and Afghanistan now has its first ever popularly elected president. But the parliamentary, provincial and district elections now scheduled for April 2005 will be considerably more complicated, and preparations are going too slowly. If the parliamentary vote is delayed again -- it was originally to have been concurrent with the presidential election -- there is a risk that the Karzai administration's legitimacy will be seriously tarnished. Both his government and the international community need to put in more resources and make more progress in the next few months on improving security, cutting down the power of the warlords, and attacking the spreading influence of the drugs trade.

The key lesson from the presidential election is that Afghans strongly want a say in their governance. Afghanistan's constitution establishes a relatively strong presidency and weak parliament. The latter's primary importance rests on the fact that it will provide political representation to all Afghans as well as a check on presidential power. Given the deep ethnic polarisation, it is essential that the multi-ethnic, multi-regional population has pluralistic and participatory avenues to express its demands and articulate its grievances through parliamentary elections. A further delay in those elections would damage the credibility of the new governmental system, particularly if the Karzai administration proves not to be ethnically and regionally inclusive, with respected representatives of Afghanistan's various communities.

The Karzai administration must pick up the pace of preparations for the April elections. There are many challenges to be overcome if they are to be kept on course. The Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), the body responsible, must not lose any more time. District boundaries must be set, and accurate population figures -- needed to determine the number of National Assembly seats in each province as well as provincial and district council membership -- have to be gathered. If these polls are to be credible, the JEMB must be seen as impartial and independent, which requires it to bring new members on board. And the international community -- which has been quick to claim credit for the presidential election -- must display greater urgency and commitment to this next critical stage of the democratic transition.

Overshadowing all the preparations are fears about security. Insurgents, principally the Taliban but also Hizb-i-Islami forces loyal to Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, have made clear their intention to disrupt the elections. Yet, as the presidential polls amply demonstrated, Afghans are keen to participate in the electoral process despite such threats.

The other, and perhaps, leading risk is posed by the continued dominance of factional militias throughout the country. Regional and local commanders' control of military, police, and intelligence resources, sometimes simultaneously, gives them access to revenue streams that can generate patronage and undermine the political space for opposition parties and other political forces. It is unlikely that all militias can be fully disarmed and demobilised in the near future but the process has to be accelerated and every attempt made to contain the domestic spoilers. Those who continue to lead militias must be excluded from the political process, as intended by the Political Parties Law and the Electoral Law.

Attention should also be paid to the lessons of the presidential election. The 9 October vote was an historic event, the country's first ever-direct election for its head of state. The high turnout, orderly conduct of voters and absence of widely expected violence demonstrated the strong desire of Afghans to participate in their country's political process. President Hamid Karzai won convincingly with 55.4 per cent of the vote, well ahead of Younus Qanuni (16.3 per cent). With some exceptions, however, voting was largely along ethnic and regional lines.

Karzai received the vast bulk of votes in the Pashtun east and south as well as a comfortable majority in the multi-ethnic west and multi-ethnic urban centres, including Kabul. Qanuni received 95 per cent of the votes in his native Panjshir province, but picked up less than expected of the Tajik vote from other provinces. The other leading candidates, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Haji Mohammad Mohaqqeq received the bulk of the Uzbek and Hazara vote respectively. The remaining 14 candidates shared less than 8 per cent.

This clearly reflects Afghanistan's deep ethnic polarisation and the continuing undue influence of militia leaders in the political process. Karzai has now committed himself to removing the warlords, whom he recently described as probably the greatest danger facing the country. Yet, he also faces the task of forming a government that has strong support in provinces where a majority voted either for militia leaders, including Dostum and Mohaqqeq, or individuals dependant on militia support, such as Qanuni. This underscores the importance of including all ethnic and regional constituencies in government through a democratic process -- a key step being the formation of an elected parliament and provincial and district institutions. Karzai faces an equally daunting challenge of purging his administration of corrupt individuals, including those involved in the flourishing drugs trade. Failure to act decisively would seriously damage his credibility and set a poor precedent for administrative reforms elsewhere in the country.

Much remains to be done if the parliamentary, provincial and district elections are to proceed as scheduled. The process may well have its flaws, as did the presidential polls, but these polls are an essential landmark in the political transition. The government and the international community must redouble efforts to ensure they are not delayed again.

Kabul/Brussels, 23 November 2004

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