By Martine van Bijlert
KABUL - In a brief press conference on January 18, 2016, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced the date for Afghanistan’s next vote: October 15, 2016. But the preparations for the elections – for the lower house of parliament and, for the first time, district councils – are complicated by ongoing controversies over the legitimacy of the current IEC, the nature of the electoral reforms that need to precede the elections as well as who will be organising them and under which amended laws.
When the National Unity Government (NUG) came into being in autumn 2014 the two sides agreed on the need for “fundamental changes” to the electoral laws and institutions before the parliamentary elections.
It was however obvious that the camps of the two former presidential contenders merging into the NUG would have differing views on what kind of reforms would be necessary. The Abdullah camp, apart from generally pushing for changes to the electoral system, has particularly insisted on the replacement of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC).
Although initially very slow, the electoral reform process finally did catch (some) steam. The position of the IEC and IECC became increasingly precarious, as the government got ready to replace at least some of the commissioners.
The IEC leadership strongly resisted these moves, arguing that they had been appointed for six years, that the executive did not have the authority to interfere and that, as the country’s main and independent electoral body, they should be in charge of everything election-related – including their own reform.
The government, however, increasingly bypassed the IEC, instead relying on the recommendations of the Special Electoral Reform Commission (SERC) that was established as part of the NUG agreement in July 2015, after a failed attempt earlier that year which created disagreement about the chairperson chosen. So today’s announcement of the election date, whether chosen in consultation with the government or not, will probably look to many Afghans as an act of defiance by the IEC.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the NUG agreement puts competing pressures on the electoral timeline, as it sets out a very ambitious sequence of events: electoral reforms before the 2015 [sic] parliamentary elections; parliamentary and district council elections before the convening of the Loya Jirga; and the Loya Jirga within two years of the establishment of the government.
Proper electoral reform is, of course, likely to take much longer, particularly at its current pace – and particularly since the Loya Jirga, strictly speaking, would already have to take place in September of this year. (Read more AAN background information about election reform here.)
This tension is already being used by political pressure groups. Shortly after the president on 31 December 2015 indicated that the elections would probably take place between summer and autumn, the Council for the Protection and Stability of Afghanistan, with Ustad Sayyaf as its most prominent spokesperson, released a statement welcoming the government’s commitment, but calling the timeline “unrealistic.”
Rather than arguing that the elections would probably take longer to prepare – given the complexity of the reforms and the fact that the district council elections have never been held before – the group argued that the timeline would make it impossible to still organise the Loya Jirga within two years of the NUG’s inauguration. It called for an election between spring and summer, which, the statement noted, would still be possible “if the government really meant to have elections.”
The council says it wants to constructively encourage reform and has no intention of bringing down the government. The fact, however, that the group is already implicitly questioning the legitimacy of a national unity government that does not follow its own agreement, is making the government uneasy.
What about the electoral reforms?
The government’s efforts to effect electoral reform, in the meantime, seem to have stalled. The long delays in the establishment of the Special Reform Commission (SERC) initially led to suspicions that the Ghani camp was dragging its feet. When the SERC finally got to work, it prepared two batches of recommended for reforms.
The first batch, presented to the CEO on August 30, 2015, resulted in several amendments by presidential decree to both the Electoral Law and the Law on the Structure, Authorities and Duties of the Electoral Bodies (the SAD Law). The most controversial amendments, at least according to the IEC, were those that changed the requirements and tenures of the electoral commissioners, opening the way for the replacement of at least some of them.
On December 21, 2015 the SERC handed in its second, more complicated batch of recommendations, including changes in the electoral system and the electoral constituencies.
This however came to a halt, when on the same day the Wolesi Jirga voted off the earlier decree that had amended the SAD Law and that was the basis for the establishment of a Selection Committee which was about to start looking for new electoral commissioners. On 26 December 2015, the Wolesi Jirga proceeded to also vote off the decree amending the Electoral Law. On 5 January 2016 the Meshrano Jirga followed suit, voting off both decrees without discussing the merits of the amendments.
With the rejection of the decrees, the electoral reform efforts are not only back to square one, it also means that the legal basis for the replacement of the IEC and IECC commissioners has, for the moment, been removed.
In a press conference on January 6, 2016, possibly emboldened by the parliament’s actions, Nuristani said the IEC would announce the election date in the next week, and added that he hoped the president would now stop sending decrees to the parliament.
He stressed once again that the 2014 presidential vote had been the best elections ever and that the Selection Committee had been established against the law. The head of the IECC Abdul Satar Saadat also welcomed the parliament’s decision and stressed that both the Reform Commission and the Selection Commission would now have to stop working.
Where to go from here?
The government has not yet formally reacted to the IEC’s announcement, which may be in part because they were busy with the quadrilateral ‘peace talks’ (or rather, the preparatory talks for hoped-for talks with the Taleban) that were taking place in Kabul on the same day.
But on the day before, after the IEC had announced it would hold a press conference, CEO Abdullah Abdullah told the council of ministers (and subsequently the press and social media) that the government considered electoral reform a pre-condition for elections and that “Afghans are still concerned over the flawed management of the previous elections.”
(The Twitter account in his name was much blunter, saying that “some Afghans are concerned that former commissioners convicted of fraud may be leading another election.”)
He left no doubt as to what reform would need to entail: “Upcoming elections will be held under the supervision of a new commission.”
President Ghani had earlier said something similar, during a televised press conference on December 31, 2015, when he stressed the government’s continued commitment to reform. He reiterated that the Selection Committee’s work would result in new commissioners (but did not specify how many) and said that the elections would be held between summer and autumn  and that the IEC would fix the exact date.
His words, slightly different from what Abdullah said, indicate that he is probably aiming for a compromise, which would leave the current electoral bodies at least partially intact and for reforms that are not too far-reaching or time-consuming.
At the end of the day, the electoral reform discussion remains plagued by two fundamental problems: on one hand, the lack of consensus on what the problems of the 2014 election were and, on the other hand, the lack of real options to decrease the likelihood of fraud, manipulation and a contested outcome in the upcoming elections (the most important intervention would be the introduction of reliable voter lists, based on centralised population data, but this is unlikely to go ahead any time soon).
It should then come as no surprise that, despite all the talk of commitments to both electoral reform and the convening of elections, there is probably very little real appetite to embark on another complicated and politically tense vote. [International Press Syndicate – 24 January 2016]