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Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Briefing 117 / Asia

Afghanistan’s Elections Stalemate

The prolonged crisis over Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections has substantially weakened President Hamid Karzai’s government and could, if left unaddressed, drive disenfranchised Afghans into the arms of the Taliban, stoke ethnic tensions and increase the risks of civil war.

I. Overview

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:

  • dissolve the special elections tribunal immediately and refer election-related criminal charges to the primary courts in the original jurisdictions in which they were allegedly committed;
  • convene a loya jirga for constitutional reform that reinforces the separation of powers by enhancing the independence of the judiciary and legislature; reducing the executive’s ability to resort to rule by decree; and strengthening provincial and district level governance through greater devolution of administrative and political authority;
  • pass legislation clarifying the role of the Independent Commission for the Supervision of the Implementation of the Constitution and fully defining its competence and authority in relation to the Supreme Court; and
  • 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

Afghan election commission workers count ballot papers of the presidential election in Kabul, Afghanistan on 28 September 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Q&A / Asia

Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace

Afghanistan’s fourth presidential election since 2001 brought perhaps 26 per cent of the electorate to the polls. In this Q&A, Crisis Group consultant Graeme Smith and Senior Analyst Borhan Osman explain the weak participation rate and explore the contest’s implications for the country’s stability.

What happened in Saturday’s Afghan presidential election?

Results will emerge slowly in the 28 September Afghan presidential election – the country’s fourth in its short post-2001 democratic history. Although both leading campaigns have already claimed a first-round victory, official preliminary tallies are not expected to be released until mid-October. Even then, the vote count will be subject to certification, which will come after electoral bodies adjudicate complaints about the process. If the official count shows no candidate gaining more than 50 per cent of the vote, a second round will be required. It is unlikely that a second round could be held until the spring, because winter weather makes voters’ access to polling places too difficult.

The contest features an incumbent, President Ashraf Ghani, who enjoys a high degree of control over the state apparatus and a strong likelihood of fending off the dozen challengers seeking to replace him. Ghani’s strongest rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, had become his reluctant partner in a unity government after disputed election results in 2014 led to a political crisis. That crisis ended with a U.S.-brokered power-sharing arrangement.

Election day came after an unusually muted campaign period. Campaigning ahead of previous presidential polls saw contenders charter aircraft, fill stadiums and deliver speeches across the country. In contrast, the 2019 season was relatively quiet, with few rallies, and with candidates who seemed uninterested in spending money or risking lives on large-scale campaigns.

How many people voted?

Turnout was low. Although preliminary results will not be out for weeks, election officials are already estimating that about 2 or 2.5 million voters came to the polls. Those numbers may decrease as some ballots are deemed fraudulent and other votes are thrown out for technical violations. The likely number of final valid votes is hard to forecast because this is the first time Afghanistan has used biometric systems for voter verification in a presidential election. The top end of the current estimated turnout range is 26 per cent of 9.6 million registered voters, a lower turnout than in any other election in Afghanistan – and, in fact, among the weakest turnouts for any national election around the world in recent history. (The largest database of turnouts is maintained by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which contains only a few examples of voters staying away from the polls on such a scale.)

Afghanistan is a divided country, with all major urban zones under the central government’s control and a large portion of the countryside in the hands of the Taliban insurgency.

The turnout figures are likely to be weaker still when considered as a percentage of the eligible electorate. Registration efforts have had disappointing results, capturing only about half of the voting-age population. Approximately half of Afghanistan’s estimated population of about 35 million is eighteen or older and therefore eligible to vote. (Afghanistan has never had a complete census, so these figures are not precise and total population estimates vary by several million.)

Why was participation so low?

Afghanistan is a divided country, with all major urban zones under the central government’s control and a large portion of the countryside in the hands of the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban – who regard the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet and therefore see presidential elections as illegitimate – threatened to disrupt the polls violently and pressed their supporters to boycott. After reports of low turnout emerged, the Taliban issued a statement thanking Afghans for shunning a “staged” process. Election authorities kept almost a third of polling centres closed, attributing their decision to security concerns. Voter frustrations with politicians and apathy might have been factors as well.

The Afghan government blamed Taliban violence for keeping Afghans from reaching the polls, and to some extent this may have been the case. A New York Times tally suggested that casualties on election day so far appear to be roughly in keeping with recent daily averages for the war, which ranks as the deadliest armed conflict in the world (measured by people killed directly in fighting). Although there were no mass-casualty incidents, the Afghanistan Analysts Network has so far counted about 400 smaller attacks that appear to reflect a pattern of voter intimidation by the Taliban. A burst of gunfire or a few mortars landing near a polling station appeared to be sufficient in many places to dampen enthusiasm for the process. Although Afghan security forces were deployed in large numbers to secure the voting process, the Taliban probably could have done more both to disrupt the polls and to inflict greater casualties if the group had decided to mount full-throttled attacks on polling sites – along the lines, for example, of the 17 September Taliban suicide attack at a Ghani campaign rally that killed 26 people.

What does the election mean for stability?

The election does not have immediate consequences for the likelihood of success of the on-and-off diplomacy to end the war, although it might affect its timing.

Elections are usually a slow burn in Afghanistan, as results trickle out, how well (or not) the electoral bodies performed becomes clearer and politicians size up their opportunities. Street demonstrations or other forms of instability can occur weeks or months after voting. That said, the risk of a serious disruption to Kabul politics appears somewhat lower than in 2014, as Abdullah’s ability to challenge an unfavourable result may be weaker. As in the 2014 election, Abdullah quickly declared himself the winner, flanked by prominent supporters at a 30 September press event. This time around, however, Abdullah was missing his biggest supporter from 2014: the former governor of Balkh province, Atta Noor, a wealthy northern power-broker whose coterie has voiced support for President Ghani in recent days. Ghani himself has not declared victory in public, but one of his senior aides in Kabul told Crisis Group that the Palace is confident of a first-round win, and his running mate, Amrullah Saleh, has said so publicly.

What does the election mean for the peace process?

The election does not have immediate consequences for the likelihood of success of the on-and-off diplomacy to end the war, although it might affect its timing, especially in the case of serious contestation over the results. But the key question for now is whether and when the U.S. intends to revive its own efforts to negotiate a settlement of the conflict, and in particular its talks with the Taliban.

The U.S. suspended the peace process in early September when President Donald Trump declined to move ahead with an initial U.S.-Taliban deal aimed at opening the way to broader talks among the Taliban, Afghan government and other Afghan power-brokers. The ball remains in Trump’s court: Taliban officials have told Crisis Group they are still open to resumption of the process. Senior Afghan officials said they would be willing to explore a diplomatic short-cut after the election process is completed, skipping the U.S.-Taliban deal and moving directly to intra-Afghan negotiations – but this has been a longstanding red line for the Taliban, who refuse to negotiate an Afghan political settlement without first resolving with the U.S. the question of foreign troop withdrawal. The Afghan government will be no better able to get the Taliban to erase that red line after the election, even if the announcement of results and reactions to them cause little or no political disturbance. Still, the Afghan government has renewed its commitment, at least rhetorically, to forging ahead with the peace process. On the day after the election, Ghani’s regional peace envoy Omar Daudzai tweeted optimistically that peace would be “accomplished within 2019”.

Contributors

Senior Analyst, Afghanistan
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan
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