AFGHANISTAN: A vote that happened

Taliban threats to disrupt the polls notwithstanding, voting for Afghanistan's parliamentary elections concluded on 18 September with less violence than anticipated. Though there were over 300 reports of violent incidents and more than 20 people killed on the day, these numbers were down from the violence during the presidential and provincial elections the previous year and far less than had been feared. Afghanistan's second parliamentary election since 2001 took place under a new electoral law, though one that still bans political parties from contesting and uses an electoral system that ensures a partyless Parliament. Final results are not anticipated for several weeks but ultimately will ensure that 249 individuals, not representing political groups, will take their place in the new Wolesi Jirga, the lower house.

The deliberate weakening of political groupings has made it difficult to formulate a new direction for the country with an alternative vision to that pursued by Hamid Karzai's government. Yet despite its weakness, Parliament remains the only body capable of challenging the government on any issue. Parliamentary approval is required for a variety of issues – appointments of senior officials including cabinet members (who are un-elected), passage of legislation and the budget (for which Parliament holds a veto). In addition, the Parliament can summon ministers to grill them on their performance. The make-up of those 249 individuals will determine Parliament's ability to perform these critical tasks, but in the lead-up to the voting there were few indications which way the electorate was leaning. While a new crop of young faces caught the imagination of the Western press, another new crop went largely unnoticed – that of commanders who had not contested the 2005 elections but felt emboldened by the impunity enjoyed by their colleagues in Parliament to come into the fray.

A crucial outcome of the vote will be how many pro- or anti-anti government MPs it yields. Preliminary results are expected on 8 October 8 and the certified results on 30 October. The previous Parliament, since 2005, was able to stymie the government on many issues, and President Karzai will be hoping for a more amenable legislature this time around. Parliament's leverage has not been used to the optimum encourage the government to perform better. Still, it remains the only institution that can balance the concentration of powers in the hands of the presidency.

Meanwhile, what of the voters? For Afghans, the fourth exercise in participatory democracy (while there have been parliaments previously, the entire population did not exercise franchise because voting facilities and registration of voters did not cover everyone) was as much about fears as hopes. Fear of insecurity, fear of Taliban threats and fear of fraud have combined to devalue the voting exercise, despite desperate official efforts to put a positive spin on the event. Barely hours after the ink had dried on the ballots, the country's Independent Election Commission (IEC) claimed a 40 percent turnout of voters – a fairly respectable figure in a conflict-ridden country, and one that allows the IEC and the international community to claim 'success', as the IEC was prompt to do. Close examination, however, reveals that this 'turnout' is based on an elastic concept of the total number of eligible voters.

Millions, here or there
Since 2003, when voter registration began, an estimated 17.5 million voter cards have been distributed in Afghanistan. Since there has been no census and no voter registry or national identity card, registration was carried out merely on the basis of someone showing up to claim a card. This was encouraged, especially in the process preceding the elections of 2004 and 2005, when voter registration was being sold as a good news story. However, even assuming every eligible voter registered himself or herself, it has left Afghanistan with an excess of some five to six million voter cards in relation to actual eligible voters.

In addition, insecurity made it impossible to open polling centres throughout the country, affecting at least 17 percent of the initially planned stations remained closed. And while extra polling stations were added in secure areas, it is doubtful whether voters took such potentially hazardous journeys to cast their vote. Both the IEC and the international community have therefore relied on this ambiguity to use a fairly elastic concept of the total number of Afghan voters – in order to make a political point. However, there are undisputed figures pointing clearly to the decreasing participation of voters over the past six years.

Uncertainty about the real number of voters in Afghanistan is not the only ambiguity about these elections. Widespread fraud took place in the 2009 presidential and provincial-council elections, and the few measures subsequently put in place do not provide confidence that fraud was not repeated. What the measures do, however, is to make it more difficult to actually detect the fraud. The IEC has taken the position that it will not, by itself, quarantine votes or take action regarding suspicious polling trends, thus leaving it to the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) to do so. But the ECC is a far weaker body than it was last year, when it played a relatively robust role in countering fraud. Earlier this year, President Karzai appropriated the right to appoint all of the ECC's members (he already appoints all members to the IEC); and complaints are now to be dealt at the provincial level, where the provincial complaints commissions – also appointed by the president – are likely to be under greater political pressure.

Finally, if a neutral arbiter is present, it is not in the form of the international donor community, which seems to have decided to beat a post-elections retreat. According to the United Nations, for instance, it is for Afghans to ensure the credibility of their polls. Undoubtedly that has been deemed the pragmatic approach, since the political scalding that took place during the presidential elections last year, after Karzai turned upon the international community furiously following allegations of fraud. But for Afghan voters, there is scant comfort in knowing that the internationals will look the other way – even as the Afghan citizens' vote has been made more vulnerable by the weakening of electoral processes and institutions under the watch of the international community itself.

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Himal Southasian