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Spotlight South Asia

Paper Nr. 8/ 2013:

The impact of Afghanistan’s electoral system on national stability Author: Sander Ruben Aarten (Heidelberg)

ISSN 2195-2787


SSA ist eine regelmäßig erscheinende AnalyseReihe mit einem Fokus auf aktuelle politische Ereignisse und Situationen Südasien betreffend. Die Reihe soll Einblicke schaffen, Situationen erklären und Politikempfehlungen geben. SSA is a frequently published analysis series with a focus on current political events and situations concerning South Asia. The series should present insights, explain situations and give policy recommendations.

APSA (Angewandte Politikwissenschaft Südasiens) ist ein auf Forschungsförderung und wissenschaftliche Beratung ausgelegter Stiftungsfonds im Bereich der Politikwissenschaft Südasiens. APSA (Applied Political Science of South Asia) is a foundation aiming at promoting science and scientific consultancy in the realm of political science of South Asia.

Die Meinungen in dieser Ausgabe sind einzig die der Autoren und werden sich nicht von APSA zu eigen gemacht. The views expressed in this paper are solely the views of the authors and are not in any way owned by APSA.

Impressum: APSA Im Neuehnheimer Feld 330 D-69120 Heidelberg


Acknowledgment: The author is grateful to the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), Brussels for the extended support on this report


The impact of Afghanistan’s electoral system on national stability

A democracy contributes to national stability if it enjoys legitimacy and the rule of law is observed. Democratic systems of government contribute to national security for their ability to accommodate interests and concerns of various stakeholders by including them in the policy making process. Popular legitimacy and the rule of law are crucial to the functioning of the democratic mechanisms of stability. Using the case of Afghanistan, this article focuses on the most basic and visible institute of a democratic system, the electoral system, and explores the impact electoral regimes can have on prospects for stability. It is argued that Afghanistan’s electoral system leads to a fragmented political landscape and improper popular representation in its parliamentary assembly, which obstructs effective policy making. In addition to that, the rule of law is violated through unlawful interventions in the election process. As a result, the democratic mechanisms of stability are seriously undermined.


Next year in April, the Afghan people will vote for a new President. Having served two terms in office, President Karzai will be constitutionally inhibited to run for another term. A year later, in 2015, the Afghans will go to the polling stations again to vote for a new parliamentary assembly in their lower house, the Wolesi Jirga. This process of political transition roughly coincides with the final phase of the security transition, i.e. the withdrawal of the majority of the international forces from the country. Together they may form one of the most daunting challenges the country has faced in its recent history. Not only will the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have to provide national security with decreasing support from international forces, but the country’s nascent democratic institutions will have to prove that they can facilitate an orderly transmission of civil political power. If history can be used as a basis to predict the future, the upcoming elections do not hold much good for peace and stability in Afghanistan as there are few examples in its history of orderly and peaceful transitions of power. (Smith and Wilder 2012) National instability looms large in case of disorderly or downright chaotic transitions and may well disrupt the democratisation process altogether. In the event the civilian government in Kabul collapses, two trajectories seem most plausible. First, the army disintegrates along the existing societal vault lines, and the resulting power vacuum would likely be filled by rivalling warlords and insurgents; it 4

is a situation that would exacerbate ethnic tensions and may drag the country into a civil war. Alternatively, in the absence of effective civilian institutions the army could assume a central political role as happened on multiple occasions in Afghanistan’s history. (Bayer Tygesen 2012, 40) In both cases, Afghanistan’s democratisation process will be put to a halt, and thereby an opportunity to work on sustainable stability in the country’s foreseeable future will be lost. This paper focuses on the role of Afghanistan’s electoral system and explores the flaws that reduce the prospects for democratic stability. In order to understand the impact an electoral system can have on a democracy’s prospects for stability, the theoretical nexus between democracy and stability is expounded. After that the main shortcomings of Afghanistan’s electoral system will be addressed and tentative recommendations on how to improve these in order to increase the chances of success of political transition will be given. To be sure, democratic stability is not solely created by the factors that are put forward in this paper. Democratic stability is fostered by a complex maze of interrelated factors that include civil-military relations, the government’s monopoly on the legal use of violence within the confines of the law, and etc. However, because this paper evaluates the impact of Afghanistan’s electoral system on its security situation, the focus has been limited to electoral system design and rule of law enforcement.

The mechanism behind democratic stability

Unlike other systems of governance, democracies can accommodate interests and concerns of various stakeholders by including them in the policy making process. By providing a forum for discussion and debate policies will be generated that are acceptable to all actors. In order to allow this democratic process to function two factors are critically important: an institutional framework that fits the social context of the state, and compliance with the rules of the democratic game. Democracy in its simplest definition is understood as governance for the people and by the people. Therefore, a democracy’s raison d’être – its legitimacy – comes from the people. Popular legitimacy is achieved if the people can identify themselves with the democratic system by accepting or subscribing to the norms and values that prevail in it. If there is no broad popular identification with the existing norms of governance, chances of domestic political turmoil increase. (Caron 2011) Risks of political turmoil relating to government illegitimacy are particularly real in heterogeneous societies like Afghanistan’s where minorities are at risk of being dominated by the majority 5

group. The parliamentary assembly constitutes the most important democratic institution where, through open debate, representatives of the various (ethnic) groups can express their interests and concerns in the law making process. Such inclusiveness in the parliamentary debates will contribute to governmental legitimacy, and national stability, because the output of the policy making process has generated legislation that takes into account the interests of all stakeholders. However, this line of argumentation presupposes that all groups in a society are adequately represented in the parliamentary assembly. This is where the influence of electoral systems comes in. Elections are arguably a democracy’s most basic and visible institution. The type of electoral system that is used determines to a great extent the way in which the democratic system functions because they shape the nature of electoral competition, determine the number of parties, the coherence or fragmentation of the political landscape, and the ability to form a government (Riphenburg 2007, 3). An electoral system basically determines the composition of the parliamentary assembly and thereby the democratic system’s ability to accommodate the multitude of interests. Because of this, it is crucial that the electoral system fits the social context of a state. Rousseau, in his Considerations on the Government of Poland, mentioned that “one must know thoroughly the nation for which one is building; otherwise the final product, however excellent it may be in itself, will prove imperfect when it is acted upon.” (cited in Przeworski 1991, 36) Indeed, an electoral system that does not fit a state’s social realities can have a detrimental effect on national stability. Similarly, a carefully chosen electoral system that matches the context of the state will contribute to a well-functioning democracy and increases the chances of national stability. In addition to seeing a democratic system’s legitimacy as the expression of a people’s identification with the prevailing norms and values of governance, legitimacy also refers to the acceptance of a state’s authority and its ability to enforce the rule of law. State authority is one of the two tools of state power, the other being state control. Authority and control are two related but distinct concepts. While authority refers to the acceptance of a specific actor’s rights to engage in certain activities, control simply entails the ability of an actor to impose its will through coercion or brute force; no mutual acceptance is involved. (Krasner 1999) Self-evidently, authority forms a crucial part of democratic governance, while authoritarian states typically rely more on control. Paradoxically, even though democratic legitimacy leads to a general acceptance of state authority by the people, the inability of a state to duly use its authority to enforce the rule of 6

law can quickly undermine its legitimacy. In the context of this paper ‘rule of law’ is understood as the necessity and obligation of all involved to abide by the rules of the democratic game. According to Przeworski (1991, 27-33) it is a government’s task to introduce and enforce ‘codes of punishment’ that must lower the payoff not to comply with the democratic process. In other words: rule of law is effectively enforced if the potential costs of violating laws do not in any way outweigh those of abiding the law. There is a positive relation between rule of law enforcement and legitimacy. In sum, democratic stability is determined by the extent to which the democratic system enjoys popular legitimacy. This, in turn, is based on two factors: First, the enforcement of the rule of law by the government; and secondly, the ability of the people to identify with the prevailing norms and values of governance. Electoral systems play an important role in determining the extent in which the democratic system can accommodate various interests and concerns. If a democratic system fits the context of the state and its society its institutions will bridge societal divisions and thereby contribute to stability.

The case of Afghanistan Afghanistan’s is a complex society of various hierarchically positioned ethnicities (Schetter 2003, 349). Due to the fact that the country has always been run by a weak central government that allows full play to its local and regional leaders, there has always been a relatively big gap between the national government and its population. (Weinstein 2004) Thus, obtaining government legitimacy has always been a difficult task for Kabul. The past three decades of war and insecurity have led to a situation where the population has organized itself in ‘survival networks’ of small communities which have proved to be more reliable than political organisations. (Riphenburg 2007, 7) To make matters more complicated, national politics have become increasingly ethnicised since the civil war of the 1990s. Nevertheless, an overarching Afghan identity certainly exists (Dupree 2002) and the move towards democracy has been welcome by the vast majority of the Afghan population (Coburn and Larson 2009, 3). The Afghan people tend to judge the extent of legitimacy of their country’s democracy on the basis of the output rather than on the trustworthiness of the processes: ‘what has the state done for me?’ (Coburn 2009, 3) Unfortunately, the experiences of the chaotic and fraudulent elections of 2009 and 2010 have alienated the Afghans from the government in Kabul. Due to these bad experiences with political competition a considerable share of the 7

population fear that the next round of elections will promote political chaos and encourage competition between groups. (Coburn and Larson 2013) Understandably, more than anything else Afghanistan’s political institutions need to facilitate stability.

A flawed electoral system

A wide variety of electoral systems exist, and the decision for one or another system has a profound impact on the state’s political dynamics. Because an electoral system affects the governability and stability of a state, it is crucial that it fits the conditions and context of the state they are designed for. This section first discusses the appropriateness of the electoral systems for the presidential elections and then for the parliamentary elections. The Afghan President is directly elected through the second ballot majority-runoff system, which is also used in French presidential elections. In this system the candidate who obtains an absolute majority (i.e. 50 + 1 %) wins the elections. If in the first round none of the candidates manage to cross this threshold, a second and final round is held in which only the two highest scoring candidates of the first round can participate. Usually, the dropouts of the first round endorse one of the two candidates who proceed to the second round of elections. (Norris 1997, 303) This two-round system is appropriate to the Afghan situation because it maximizes the support base for the victor and therefore ensures a relatively high degree of electoral inclusiveness. For the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga the single non-transferable vote system (SNTV) is used. SNTV is a semi-proportional electoral system that shares some characteristics with the first-past-the-post system (sometimes also referred to as ‘Westminster system’). In the case of Afghanistan it consists of province-based multimember constituencies, in which the number of seats to be allocated is determined by the population of the province. Each voter has one vote, and candidates require a relative majority of all votes cast in order to obtain a seat in the Wolesi Jirga. The non-transferability of the votes that are cast in the SNTV system refers to the fact that, unlike in electoral systems with open or closed party lists, a vote for any candidate of a given political party does not indirectly benefit the other candidates of the same political party in their chances to win a seat. Essentially, this electoral system renders political party affiliation unimportant. Furthermore, the relative majority criterion implies that small margins can separate winners from losers, as table 1 demonstrates. It makes the system vulnerable to strategic voting and fraud. (Reynolds and Carey 2012, 2-3). 8

4-seat Constituency example in SNTV

Party X

Independent Independent Independent


9% 17%






17% 18% 15%

Party X obtained 50% of all votes, yet only one candidate got elected

The independent candidates together obtained 50% of the votes, yet all three got elected

Table 1 Example of seat allocation in the SNTV system. Source: Compiled by the author.

Party-affiliation is not important in the SNTV-system unless the party leadership knows which candidates are likely to gain a relative majority large enough to maximize the electoral gain for the political party. This requires skilled and strategic campaigning. If a party lacks those capabilities, the electoral gain may be less than the sum of all votes received, as shown in table 1. Looking at the current and previous compositions of the Wolesi Jirga, table 2 demonstrates that the Hazaras are surprisingly well represented. This comes as no surprise as the Hazara community is politically better organised than other ethnic groups and known for mobilising its community to back particular candidates. In doing so, the Hazaras have been able to use the characteristics of the SNTV system in such a way that maximal electoral gain was yielded (ICG 2005, 6). The distorting representative effects that this system can produce are demonstrated by the election results in Ghazni province in 2010. Although 49% of the population in that province is of Pashtun and 45% of Hazara descendent, all eleven available seats went to Hazara candidates. (Ramsey 2011, 3)

Ethnic group Pashtun Tajik Hazara Uzbek Aimaq Turkmen

% of population 42 27 9 9 4 3

2005 Wolesi Jirga Seats % 114 45,78 64 25,70 35 14,06 19 7,63 2 0,80 4 1,61

2010 Wolesi Jirga Seats % 98 70 50 17 4 3

Table 2 Relative representation per ethnic group in the 2005 and 2010 Wolesi Jirgas. Source: CIA World Factbook; Livingston et al 2011, 21.

Additionally, the SNTV system leaves the Wolesi Jirga highly fragmented. More than 60%


39,36 28,11 20,08 6,83 1,61 1,20

of all seats in the Wolesi Jirga are occupied by independent MPs (Reynolds and Carey 2012, 10). Consequently, the parliamentary playfield is highly volatile due to constantly changing majorities and powers blocs. This, in turn, reduces the effectiveness of the Wolesi Jirga as a law making body and weakens the parliamentary checks and balances on the President’s office. The negative impact that this has on the rule of law and the ability to deliver policies that serve the needs of the Afghan population also has consequences for its credibility and legitimacy.

The importance of political parties

Political parties have a negative connotation for many Afghans due to several bad historical experiences. Arousing memories of the Marxist party which ruled the country until 1992 and the politicised Mujahideen factions that fought a civil war in the years thereafter, political parties are associated with conflict and ethnic tensions. Many Afghans, including President Karzai, believe that giving more leeway to political parties may fuel ethnic tensions which would further deteriorate the security situation in the country. (Larson 2009a, 2) Consequently, the rules for establishing a political party are very strict: they cannot be based on ethnicity, Islamic school of thought, region, language, and cannot have military aims or a paramilitary wing. (Riphenburg 2007, 6) In the 2005 elections partyaffiliated candidates were banned from using party symbols on the ballot list. The importance of political parties in a democracy cannot be underestimated. They are institutions within the democratic institution itself. The core business of a political party revolves around aggregating, formulating and representing interests in parliament. But in addition to that, they are civil society actors in their own right too. Similar to the controlling function that political parties have through their MPs, the representative function of a party (i.e. the party doctrine and the interests that it serves) are monitored by their members and electorate. This stimulates not only popular political engagement, but also a democracy’s embedding in a society. In doing so, parties bridge the gap between government and society (Burnell 2004, 1). Furthermore, and most importantly in the Afghan context, political parties have more leverage in parliament ‘to get things done’ than independent MPs because all politicians of a party adhere to a shared set of policy principles and cooperate in the parliamentary assembly to make policies that are consistent with those principles. (Reynolds and Carey 2012, 2)


Inadequate rule of law

In addition to electoral system design as a critical factor in generating legitimacy, the enforcement of the rule of law is equally important because it determines the extent to which the electoral results can be trusted. As Coburn (2009) pointed out, the Afghans are realistic about the fact that in their country’s current state crisp and clean elections are impossible to achieve. Electoral rigging like rinsing off voting ink and forging voter registration cards happened in all elections since 2004 and are considered as relatively minor infringements on the integrity of the electoral process. Yet, the elections of 2004 and 2005 are generally perceived as more credible than those held in 2009 and 2010. The presidential elections of 2009 were chaotic. After the counting of the votes had finished the Independent Election Committee (IEC) and Electoral Complaints Committee (ECC) contradicted each other. First of all, the IEC chairman had to be replaced due to allegations against the first of being positively biased towards Karzai. Secondly, while the IEC (whose members are appointed by the President) claimed that Karzai has won with a 56% majority, the ECC (3 out of its 5 members are appointed by the United Nations) stated that he won only 48% of the votes and therefore wanted a second round of runoff elections. Karzai received much pressure from the international community to comply with the ECC’s judgement. In the end the runoff never happened and Karzai could start his second Presidential term because his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew. (Horin 2013) Not only the President, but also the international community lost credibility. For example, rather than supporting the democratic elections at large, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke supported individual candidates against Karzai. (Smith and Wilder 2012) The result was that the government lost credibility among the Afghan population because it had the strong appearance that the President, or the international community, or both, intervened in the electoral process. The 2010 parliamentary elections were an example of continued institutional obscurity. While the IEC and EEC were in the process of addressing more than 2000 complaints, the Supreme Council intervened and recommended the President to establish a tribunal to review the electoral process. Karzai approved the recommendation and appointed a fiveheaded ‘Special Election Tribunal’ which was to investigate 232 cases of electoral fraud for criminal proceedings and review the conduct of election officials. The move was met with much criticism, especially by the IEC and ECC who dismissed the legal basis of the tribunal unconstitutional. (Ramsey 2011, 4) 11

The eruption of institutional chaos following the polling days have catalysed into a problem that is larger than the sum of all electoral mishaps together. The strong appearance of intervention by the President and/or the international community in the electoral process and the fact that the government institutions had conflicting views on how to process electoral fraud are an indication of lacking enforcement of the rule of law and may have cost more legitimacy than the cases of fraud themselves.

Conclusion and recommendation Although the basic principle of democracy, i.e. to elect one’s government representatives, is generally accepted (Coburn and Larson 2009, 3), the Afghans have become disillusioned with their government. First of all, the system is prone to fraud. The perceived interventions by the government and international community in the electoral process, as well as the lacking provisions to come to an electoral result in an orderly way have not contributed to popular trust in the government. Secondly, the SNTV-system has effectively created an ungovernable system. Fragmentation due to the high number of independent MPs frustrates the ability of the Wolesi Jirga to execute its parliamentary tasks of delivering laws and policies that benefit the Afghan people. These shortcomings, that find their cause in the inadequate enforcement of the rule of law and the ill-designed electoral system, reduces a sense of popular ownership of the system and generated distrust and disillusionment with the government. As a result, the gap between the Afghan people and the government has widened in recent years due to the latter’s decreased rate of popular legitimacy. The profound consequences of these are that the democratic forces of stability have become seriously obstructed. Stability can be best guaranteed if all constituent forces trust each other and the government sufficiently to compromise over common concerns. (Weinstein 2004) However, in its current form the democratic system obstructs rather than fosters government legitimacy. Therefore, the following prudent points of recommendation are given. Firstly, while maintaining the two-round voting system for the Presidential elections, the government of Afghanistan would be well-advised to do away with the SNTV-system and move towards a system of party democracy with closed national party lists. Opting for a system with closed party lists may appear controversial considering the fact that Afghans tend to vote on the basis of highly local and/or regional motivations. However, Afghanistan does not have regional constituencies as in the Westminster model and an introduction of 12

such a system would imply the almost impossible task of drawing new constituencies. Afghanistan’s constituencies are equal to its provinces. This means that MPs have to represent an area that is often the size of countries like Belgium and the Netherlands. Consequently, voting for a candidate with the expectation that it will represent the interests of the local community is a tough call. Disillusionment with an MP’s inability to deliver is therefore always lurking. The benefit of a system with closed party lists is that it removes the high expectations of an electorate for putting too much hope on one individual MP. In the proposed system voters can only vote for a party which, because it usually comprises more than one MP, has more leverage in parliament ‘to get things done’ and is therefore likely to increase popular legitimacy of the government. As for strengthening the rule of law, important roles are put aside for the Afghan government and the international community. While it is up to the government of Afghanistan to enforce the rule of law, it cannot do so without the continued assistance of the international community in developing and reforming the judiciary, police, army and administration. However, the international community must see to it that its operations are not seen as too intrusive or, worse, are perceived as an intervention in the democratic process for this would negatively affect the sense of ownership and legitimacy of both the government and the international community. Democratisation processes are long and often unstable processes. The government of Afghanistan does not have the capabilities to manage this process independently. At the end of 2014 the majority of international combat forces will have withdrawn from Afghanistan. Many Afghans fear in the process the international community will lose its interest in Afghanistan. It is crucial that the international community continues to commit itself to supporting the government in Kabul in enhancing the rule of law and strengthening its democratic institutions. If the international community is indeed to turn its back to Afghanistan, much of the progress that has been made, however feeble, will be at risk of annihilation.


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The impact of Afghanistan’s electoral system on national stability  

The impact of Afghanistan’s electoral system on national stability

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