Why Afghans are pushing for democratic elections soon
Security has been the main focus in Afghanistan, but many say preparations for democratic elections are equally important if the country is to succeed after 2014.
As election debates heat up in the US, another election halfway around the world in Afghanistan is not picking up the steam that may be needed to keep the county from backpedaling into civil war, say some Afghans.
Afghanistan has two transitions scheduled for 2014, and both will determine the fate of the country: a security transition that will transfer the country’s security from US and NATO forces to Afghan forces, and a political transition that will elect a new president. And though much has been discussed about the look and feel of the security transition, many within Afghanistan are worried that if the way is not paved for democratic elections, security in the end may not matter.
“We don’t see the movement right now on preparations for the elections. These early stages are critical for ensuring the processes work later on and the Afghan people elect a president that will lead the country through a critical transition,” says Ahmad Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an election observer organization.
“In order to have a lasting impact, we need to prepare the groundwork for free and fair elections right now. There are groups inside and outside of the Afghan government trying to cling to power and sabotage the 2014 elections,” says Taj Ayubi, a top-level adviser on international relations to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Although Mr. Ayubi wouldn’t name anyone specifically, he said that there is a push by some groups to isolate Afghanistan from the international community.
“These Afghans are the same ones that are involved in high-level corruption schemes and part of the drug mafias. They have a lot to lose and are using the rhetoric of nationalism and sovereignty as an excuse to push the international community away from monitoring and being involved in the 2014 presidential and provincial council elections,” Ayubi says.
Ayubi, Mr. Nadery, and leaders of opposition political parties in Afghanistan are calling for increased monitoring by Afghan and international organizations starting now, in the early stages of the election process.
These processes include setting the election date, approving a new electoral law, and establishing mechanisms to monitor campaign finance contributions and interference of government officials in the elections.
“If the processes around the elections are not prioritized immediately, the chaos can lead to transnational terrorist groups surfacing in Afghanistan and trying to take over the government, a state of emergency being declared, or civil war breaking out,” Ayubi says.
Major point of contention
President Karzai's term expires in May 2014, and the constitution says elections must be held 30 to 60 days before an incumbent leaves office. But setting the date has been a major point of contention in the election process.
Leading opposition figures have criticized Karzai for using and manipulating the Independent Election Commission, Afghanistan’s constitutionally mandated body that administers elections, to support his political agenda. The National Coalition of Afghanistan, a coalition of more than 10 opposition political parties, has called for the IEC and Karzai to finalize the election date as soon as possible in order to mitigate the possibility of any last-minute political disputes that have occurred in previous elections.
“Members of the coalition are worried that the current government is delaying the election date and other processes to give themselves a lead and advance their own candidate and political agenda,” says Sayed Fazel Sancharaki, the spokesperson for the National Coalition of Afghanistan.
Noor Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for the IEC, says every attempt will be made to keep the election within the constitutionally mandated time but that several factors affect the date of the elections, including levels of violence and insecurity, how voter registration will be handled, and securing $150 million to pay for the elections.
However, Nadery says, the IEC must work to build public confidence in the commission and be transparent in all of its activities. The commission’s independence came into question in January when Karzai appointed five new commissioners to the IEC. Opposition groups criticized the IEC for allowing Karzai to appoint only supporters to the commission.
'We are running the risk of doing this again'
The timeline for other election activities and processes depends on the election date. A new version of the election law, which election experts say will require extensive discussion, is currently under review by the Afghan Ministry of Justice.
The draft will then be submitted to the council of ministers, go through both houses of parliament, and be signed by the president.
“In Parliament there isn’t much movement in taking the election law and electoral reform as a priority. The current election law was rushed in 2004 and as a result has a lot of problems and wasn’t widely debated by all sectors of civil society. We are running the risk of doing this again and not fully thinking through the election law before the 2014 elections,” says Nadery.
The new electoral law has many controversial points, including suggestions for changing the voting system and reforming the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), the electoral watchdog that comes into power four months before the election date and receives complaints about electoral issues.
In the 2009 presidential elections, the United Nations-backed ECC was the primary institution to investigate allegations of electoral fraud and threw out close to a million votes for Karzai.
Three main views exist on how the ECC should be reformed, and Nadery says each view is supported by the people who would benefit most from it.
“One view is to fold the complaints commission into the IEC and let it become an adjudicating body under the main election commission. Another view is to have it be part of the judiciary, and a third view is to have it be a completely independent and permanent body,” Nadery says.
The third option of making the ECC into an independent and permanent body could extend the work of the commission to include consistent monitoring of campaign finances and interference of government employees in campaigns.
This would give political parties and other members of civil society a forum to report and address their concerns at a very early stage of the elections.