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Political Landscape

Afghanistan Election Conundrum (5): A late demand to change the electoral system

Ali Yawar Adili 16 min

A group of influential political parties have called for a change to the electoral system. This emerged out of the ongoing dispute between one of the parties, predominantly Tajik Jamiat-e Islami, and the presidential palace over the contested dismissal of Balkh Governor Atta Muhammad Nur. The group wants political parties to have a greater role in elections. Previous attempts at getting this have failed due to a lack of consensus, and the electoral system remained unchanged. Moreover, this new attempt at changing the electoral system has come very late. AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili takes a close look at the political parties’ demand and its impact on preparations for the upcoming elections (with input from Thomas Ruttig). 

The united party leaders who demand a larger role for political parties in the future elections. Source: Facebook page, Salahuddin Rabbani

This is part five of a series of dispatches about preparations for the elections. Part one dealt with political aspects and part two dealt with an initial set of technical problems: the date, the budget and the debate regarding the use of biometric technology. Part three dealt with the dilemmas over electoral constituencies. Part four dealt with controversies around the appointment of a new member of the Independent Election Commission, following the president’s dismissal of its chairman.

Leaders and officials of 21 political parties and groups came together at a conference in Kabul on 24 February 2018. They are coalescing around the demand for a change to the electoral system that would give political parties more weight in the upcoming parliamentary ballot. The group includes major parties such as Jamiat-e Islami, which is predominantly Tajik, predominantly Pashtun Hezb-e Islami (both factions of the party) (1), mainly Uzbek Jombesh-e Melli Islami and two major factions of the Hazara-dominated Hezb-e Wahdat. The 21-party group called in particular for parties to be allowed to field party-based candidates list and votes cast for these lists being transferable in each constituency in order to “prevent wastage of people’s votes.”

There are currently 74 registered political parties in Afghanistan, according to the list on the Ministry of Justice’s website. The group of 21 parties (see their full list in footnote 2) includes almost all of the former mujahedin factions, but none of the smaller pro-democratic and formerly left-wing parties.

The group’s 24 February “Statement of Political Parties and Currents about the Parliamentary Elections” (full text here) and under footnote 2) also included a number of other demands, that: parliamentary elections should be held before early Mizan 1397 (late September 2018) at the very latest; measures be taken to allow refugees, IDPs and those who live in insecure areas to use their right to vote; a room to accommodate political party agents be established within the IEC headquarters and provincial offices to allow for effective monitoring of political parties of all ‘elections processes’; and that the polling centres in different provinces that the IEC recently removed due, it said, to security reasons, but without any details beyond that, should be reassessed carefully and the IEC’s report should be shared with political parties.

The demand to strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral system is based on a proposal by the Special Electoral Reform Commission (SERC) that was established by the government in 2015 to come up with proposals for electoral reform. In December 2015, the SERC mainly suggested shifting from SNTV to a multi-dimensional representation (MDR) system (more on this below).

This new motion to introduce an electoral system more conducive to political parties was initiated and driven by Jamiat. On 25 February 2018, Muhammad Nateqi, deputy leader of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami Mardom Afghanistan (led by Second Deputy Chief Executive Muhammad Mohaqeq), told AAN that the idea stemmed from the negotiations between Jamiat and the Palace over President Ashraf Ghani’s contested dismissal of Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Nur, who is also the head of Jamiat’s executive council (shura-ye ejra’iya). According to Nateqi, Jamiat had already, among other things (see AAN’s previous report about its demand on e-tazkera here), demanded a stronger role for political parties in elections during those negotiations. The Palace told Jamiat that it was not representing political parties in general, whereupon Jamiat reached out to other parties. Nateqi further said that, at first, there were eight political parties which agreed on the proposals reflected in the 24 February statement.

On 26 February 2018, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) released a statement to the media in response to political parties’ demand (see the statement here in English), saying that it “is committed to conducting the Wolesi Jirga and District Council elections in 1397 (2018-19), provided that the required budget for the process is provided within due time, and security of the process is maintained. Changing the electoral system at this sensitive time would seriously affect the preparations for the upcoming elections, and probably may [sic] result in delaying the conduct of these elections in 1397 (2018-19).” (3)

The Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA), a major domestic election observer group, also issued a statement on 27 February 2018 calling the SNTV system “old and unresponsive,” and that it results in wastage of “a substantial percentage of votes.” It also said that changing the electoral system “must not be an excuse for postponement of forthcoming parliamentary elections.” In this context, it emphasised that the next parliamentary elections must be held in the Afghan year 1397, ie before March 2019.

The Palace has so far not reacted publicly. Only President Ashraf Ghani’s deputy spokesman, Dawa Khan Minapal, in a conversation with AAN on 5 March 2018, suggested that the political parties could raise their demands with second Vice-President Sarwar Danesh, who is heading the law committee of the government within the framework of the electoral law.

The political parties responded to the IEC’s reaction on 5 March 2018 with another statement, calling it “muhaseba na-shuda” (unconsidered) and threatened to reconsider their cooperation with the IEC if it continued to take “unconsidered stances.” Nur Rahman Akhlaqi, a member of Jamiat’s leadership council, and Nateqi of Wahdat-e Mardom in conversations with AAN argued that the current electoral law had been enforced through a presidential legislative decree without being approved by the parliament. The government had not sent the decree to the parliament, they said, because the government had counted all the years since the expiry of the original five year term of the parliament (ie 2015) as (repeatedly) the ‘last working year’ of its legislative term. According to the constitution, the parliament cannot amend the electoral law in its last working year. According to them, the president could just issue another decree saying that parties could introduce lists and their votes could be transferable.

This exchange of partly unfriendly arguments between the IEC and the 21 political parties, who are among the main stakeholders in the elections, does not augur well as there had already been an absence of trust between them. In October last year, for instance, another political grouping called the Shura-ye Tafahum-e Jeryanha-ye Siyasi Afghanistan (Understanding Council of Political Currents of Afghanistan) demanded the complete replacement of the members of both commissions (see AAN’s previous report about its members and demands here). At that time, some other parties such as Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami faction supported the IEC. This time, however, Hezb is one of the signatories to the parties’ statements and its spokesman Nader Afghan confirmed to AAN on 5 March 2018 that the party was in full concurrence with the statements.

The Jamiat-Arg negotiations

As mentioned above, Jamiat has taken the lead in this initiative by reaching out to other political parties. This came after the conflict between Jamiat and the Palace over President Ghani’s contested dismissal of Governor Atta Muhammad Nur in December 2017. Both Atta (see here, the Jamiat statements here and here) opposed Ghani’s decision to remove Atta. Following this, Jamiat entered into negotiations with a delegation representing the Palace in late December, although Atta himself was not a member of this negotiating team. On the Palace’s side, National Security Advisor Muhammad Hanif Atmar, the head of the National Directorate of Security Masum Stanekzai, Minister of Finance Eklil Hakimi and Salam Rahimi, head of the administrative office of the president, were involved. Jamiat’s demands in those negotiations included the issue of Atta’s dismissal, changes in the electoral law, and the roll-out of the e-tazkera (see more on the controversies about e-tazkera here)

Jamiat’s Akhlaqi confirmed, when talking to AAN on 5 March 2018, that the demand for a stronger role for political parties in parliamentary elections was indeed the second item on Jamiat’s list of demands in the negotiations with the Palace. However, he refused to confirm Nateqi’s account that it was stimulated by Jamiat’s negotiations with the Palace, saying rather that it had originated from SERC’s 2015 proposal and, therefore, reflected an older general demand by all political parties. He insisted that the alleged lead role of Jamiat was “Palace propaganda” and a bid to alienate other political parties.

It also might be the case that Jamiat is trying to distance itself from being the initiator of the motion, because it has already been criticised by electoral allies such as the Hezb-e Islami faction led by former minister of economy Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal and Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami Mardom Afghanistan for allegedly acting on its own behalf in negotiations with the Palace and ignoring other parties’ desire to have a share in government (see media report here).

A flash from the past: discussions about the electoral system

Afghanistan’s electoral system has been a topic of debate since the first parliamentary elections in 2005. Prior to them, the then-50 registered political parties demanded a proportional representation (PR) system (see AAN’s previous reporting here). The United Nations initially also proposed an electoral system based on PR that would be applied in province-wide, multi-member constituencies which would be approved by the cabinet. However, former president Hamed Karzai rejected the system, partly to militate against the emergence of strong parties, and opted for a system based on a single non-transferable vote (SNTV). In SNTV, voters select a candidate rather than a party. (See also this AREU’s report). The debate continued before the 2010 parliamentary elections. In March 2008, dozens of parties with various ideologies demonstrated outside parliament, calling for an amendment to the electoral system. They wanted a ‘parallel system’, ie 60 per cent of the Wolesi Jirga seats to be distributed to party lists on the basis of proportional representation and 40 per cent on the basis of a ‘majority vote’ (SNTV). This system, they argued, would “uphold democratic norms and minimise the number of invalid ballots in elections.” This did not happen. (See AAN’s previous analysis here).

In 2012, the IEC drafted a new electoral law in which it proposed shifting to a mixed electoral system. The IEC did this based on a request from the Ministry of Justice, which had asked the IEC to review the existing electoral law after an initiative by the Wolesi Jirga disappeared following changes to its administrative board. According to the IEC’s proposal, after the ten seats for the kuchis (nomads) were subtracted, one third of the remaining 239 Wolesi Jirga (lower house) seats would be allocated to political parties and the remaining two thirds would continue to be distributed among individual candidates on the basis of SNTV. The provinces would serve as the constituencies for both party and individual seats. (See AAN’s previous analysis here, the draft electoral law in Dari here and the IEC’s statement in English here).

Those proposals, however, were deemed to further complicate the electoral system for a still widely illiterate or semi-literate electorate. Meanwhile, the SNTV system has continued to be widely criticised by various political groups for, among other issues, producing a high number of wasted votes, not encouraging the development of political parties and producing a fragmented parliament (see also AAN’s previous reporting here).

The NUG’s failure to choose a (new) electoral system

The debate about the need for changing the electoral system restarted after the disputed 2014 presidential elections. When the current president, Ashraf Ghani, and chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, formed the National Unity Government (NUG) in September 2014, they agreed on the need for “fundamental changes” to the electoral laws and institutions with the objective to “implement electoral reform before the 2015 parliamentary elections.” The political agreement (see full text here) also said the president would “issue a decree to form a special commission for the reform of the electoral system.”

Pursuant to this agreement, the Special Electoral Reform Commission (SERC) prepared two batches of recommended reforms. The first batch was submitted on 30 August 2015 and the second on 21 December 2015 (see AAN’s previous reporting here). The SERC members were unanimous in their desire to change the SNTV system, but failed to agree on what should replace it (see AAN’s analysis here). As a result, three proposals came out of their work:

First, in its first batch of reform proposals, the SERC recommended that the SNTV system be changed into a parallel system, that is to say, one third of the seats of the Wolesi Jirga should be allocated to the political parties on the basis of PR, with a country-wide constituency, and the rest would be distributed to independent candidates through SNTV in provincial-level constituencies. (The SERC also introduced a three per cent threshold and open list for political parties’ quotas. In its final batch of recommendations, the threshold was reduced to two per cent and the open list was changed to closed list.) Meanwhile, the SERC also recommended that the current province-wide, multi-member constituencies be divided into smaller one to five-member electoral constituencies for the independent candidates for the Wolesi Jirga which should be “approved with consensus).” The proposal was not unanimous as two SERC members disagreed with it and thus boycotted the meetings. As a result, the president referred the issue of electoral system and constituency back to the SERC for further studies. (4)

Second, as a result of further study, the SERC, with advice from the UN, developed a Multi-Dimensional Representation (MDR) system with multi-member constituencies (mainly provinces, but if necessary, some provinces could be divided in such a way that each constituency should at least have five seats), which it presented to the government in late 2015. Under the MDR system, in theory, there could be four categories of candidates: 1) independent individuals; 2) list of ad hoc alliance of individuals; 3) list of party candidates and; 4) list of a coalition of parties. The list would be open and voters would still vote for individuals, but the determination of the winners would be done in two steps – first counting how many seats the best-performing lists had earned and then awarding seats to the individuals on these lists with the most votes (see here)

Third, the two boycotting SERC members presented their own favoured system to the government, which was the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, a plurality system applied in single-member districts. According to their proposal, the quota seats reserved for women (65) and Kuchis (10) and the tiny Sikh and Hindu community (1) would be subtracted from the total 250 Wolesi Jirga seats and the rest (174) would be elected in single-member districts.

The debate over the choice of an alternative to the current SNTV has been polarised, as proponents of the different options have weighed how particular changes might impact the balance of power in the parliament. Other considerations have been the future parliament’s ethnic make-up, its factional and geographical representation, whether the changes would and should contribute to strengthening political parties or not, and what they would mean for the women’s quota. In a climate of heightened suspicion, it has been difficult for the government and different sides to unite around an alternative to the SNTV.

The government, therefore, did not incorporate any of these proposed systems into either of legislative decree which amended the electoral laws and which were rejected by the parliament in December 2015 (see AAN’s previous reporting here) and June 2016 (AAN report here).

In preparation for a third legislative decree, the cabinet focussed on only changing the electoral constituencies, without making any mention of the electoral system. It discussed single-member constituencies (which would, by extension, also mean the first-past-the-post system, a system that had been proposed by the two, dissenting SERC members) as an alternative to the current, province-wide, multi-member constituencies and tried to include them in the current electoral law. This law was passed by legislative decree in September 2016 and has not been submitted to the parliament for approval and has since been effective, governing electoral processes and institutions. However, the cabinet did not reach a consensus on electoral constituencies for either parliamentary and provincial council elections and deferred that decision to the IEC. In effect, it made no change to the electoral system: everything stayed as it was. (See AAN’s previous reporting about the discords on the proposed single-member districts here and here and about the status of decision about electoral constituencies here ).

Conclusion: an overdue but late demand and lack of consensus

The demand for a change to the electoral system is not new. SNTV has been criticised from various sides ever since it was introduced, but has proven impossible to remove. What is significant now is that this is the first time that major political parties have called for a specific, list-based electoral system. Their demand also indicates that electoral reform has been incomplete and has not addressed major issues around holding elections in Afghanistan, particularly the disenfranchisement of political parties.

The demand is valid, but has come too late for this electoral cycle. It is valid because, based on the constitution and the Political Parties Law, parties are entitled to a stronger role in elections, while the successive electoral laws, and the electoral system laid down in them –SNTV – prevented political parties from fielding party-based candidates lists. The SNTV favours individual candidates who are only allowed to mention their party affiliation on the ballot paper and election handouts. (In previous elections many did, while others preferred to label themselves as ‘independent’.) The move is late because coming to an agreement on the details of the proposed system could trigger a new round of open-ended debate and prove to be time-consuming. The proposal by some to solve the problem by a presidential decree (at the same time as they criticise the lack of involvement of the parliament on related issues) seems too simplistic. Given all this, the issue has the potential to further disrupt (the already far from smooth) preparations for parliamentary elections, which are still officially planned for this year. (The IEC has cancelled 7 July 2018 as the election date, but not given a new one yet.) At the same time, as suggesting a change to the election system which is bound to cause delays, the same 21 parties also insist that the elections be held on time.

It is also not clear yet how the reported “imminent breakthrough” in the Atta-Palace conflict might affect this initiative. It is possible that Jamiat will continue to pursue it, but also that it will take more of a back seat, and that, if it does, other parties will continue the push for change. A similar all-party initiative sought to promote the role of parties in elections before the 2014 presidential election – the so-called Coordination Council of Political Parties and Coalitions of Afghanistan – forwarded a ‘Democracy Charter’ (more here), but disintegrated in the run-up to that poll, when different member-parties joined opposing camps.

Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Kate Clark

Photo source here.


(1) As seen in footnote two, there is only one Hezb-e Islami on the list while, in political reality, there are two Hezb factions that claim to be the one and only Hezb. One led by the party’s historical leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was in the insurgency until recently, while the other, led by former minister of economy Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, has operated as a political party in Afghanistan since 2005 (more background in this AAN analysis). Arghandiwal was seen at the parties’ 24 February conference. Nateqi said there were representatives from Hekmatyar’s faction, too.

(2) Full text of 24 February 2018 statement and the names of the political parties and groups that signed it (AAN’s translation):

Statement of political parties and currents about the parliamentary elections

We call for the holding of transparent and fair elections, which result in the establishment of a credible parliament, [which will be] the real representative of the will of all the nation and supported by a majority of the people. We emphasise that the next elections must be held on the announced date without any delay or procrastination. We are determined to turn these elections into an effective instrument for resolving the crisis. Ensuring transparency of elections and [making sure that] no faction opposes their results requires the monitoring and supervision [eshraf] by parties and electoral coalitions of the entire process of the elections, from the beginning to the end, so that [the transparency of the elections] is guaranteed and the shortcomings and violations of previous elections are not be repeated.

Considering these things, we political parties and currents emphasise that:

  1. The parliamentary elections should be held at the latest in early Mizan 1397 (late September 2018).
  2. In order to prevent the people’s votes for political parties and coalitions being wasted, the votes of lists in each constituency should be transferable.
  3. For all residents of Afghanistan including refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs) and those who live in insecure areas, the way for them to use their right to vote should be paved.
  4. Every eligible Afghan should be able to run as a candidate independently or from the address of their favourite party and coalition.
  5. Through establishing a room for political party monitoring within the IEC headquarters and provincial offices, the way for political parties’ effective monitoring of the entire process of the elections be paved and no decision and action by the Independent Election Commission and Electoral Complaints Commission be taken, away from the party observation.
  6. The polling centres which have recently been removed by the Election Commission in different provinces, due to security reasons, should be reassessed carefully and [the Commission’s] report be shared with the political parties.

We, political parties and currents, once again call on the National Unity Government and the International Community to take action as soon as possible to implement these demands [so that] the right of millions of people who are members of political parties are not wasted by depriving political parties of their right to participate in the elections.

We stand firm by our legitimate and reasonable demands and reserve the right to use all of our civil and legal rights to realise these demands.

Kabul – 5 Hut 1396 (24 February 2018)

Names of political parties and currents in alphabetical order [in Dari]

  1. [Hezb-e] Eqtedar-e Melli
  2. Afghan Mellat
  3. [Hezb-e] Paiwand-e Melli
  4. Jabha-ye Nawin-e Melli Afghanistan
  5. Jabha-ye Nejat-e Melli Afghanistan
  6. Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan
  7. Jombesh-e Melli Islami Afghanistan
  8. Herasat-e Islami Afghanistan [previously known as Hezb-e Wahdat-e Melli Islami-ye Afghanistan]
  9. Harakat-e Islami Afghanistan
  10. Harakat-e Islami-ye Mutahed Afghanistan
  11. Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami Mardom-e Afghanistan
  12. Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan [both Hekmatyar and Arghanidwal factions]
  13. Hezb-e Islami-ye Mutahed Afghanistan
  14. Hezb-e Etedal-e Afghanistan
  15. [Hezb-e] Haq wa Adalat
  16. Rawand-e Hefazat az Arzeshha-ye Jihad wa Muqawamat
  17. Hezb-e Qeyam-e Melli Afghanistan
  18. Mahaz-e Melli Islami Afghanistan
  19. Nahzat-e Hambastagi-ye Melli Afghanistan
  20. [Hezb-e] Wahdat-e Islami Afghanistan
  21. [Hezb-e] Wahdat-e Islami Mardom-e Afghanistan

(source here)

Both Nateqi of Wahdat-e Mardom and Akhlaqi of Jamiat told AAN that there had been meetings with other political parties which might join the call for change to the electoral system. In the political parties’ second (5 March) statement, the list did include four more parties: Bedari-e Mellat-e Afghanistan; Refah-e Melli Afghanistan; Solh-e Melli Islami Afghanistan; and Mellat-e Mutahed Afghanistan. This increases the number to 25.

(3) The IEC, in its statement, also addressed some of the other demands by the political parties. For instance, on the demand for laying the ground for all residents of Afghanistan including refugees, IDPs and people in insecure areas, the IEC said that based on its legal obligation, it was “committed to providing the opportunity for exercising the right to vote to all persons eligible to vote throughout the country, and that will definitely include IDPs as well.” On the demand for a room for political party agents to be present in the IEC, it said that it had already established the National Election Forum as a continuous consultation mechanism with stakeholders, including political parties and “would [still] welcome their permanent representatives to the Commission.” On the demand for a reassessment of the polling centres, the IEC said that:

The IEC conducted a comprehensive program of the polling centers assessment at the secure areas of the country. The list of the polling centers including the areas, the polling centers of which were not assessed, was approved during the several open sessions of the Commission and was published on the Commission’s website. The PCs list will be finalized after adjudication of complaints received by the Electoral Complaints Commission. It is worth mentioning that in case security of those areas are maintained, where the polling centers were not assessed, the Commission is committed to assess the polling centers in there before the elections. It is also to be mentioned that, the polling centers of those districts where the PCs assessment cannot take place, will remain as per the past.

(4) In response to the concern that changing the electoral system would delay the elections, both Akhlaqi of Jamiat and Nateqi of Wahdat-e Mardom in conversations with AAN argued that the current electoral law has been enforced through a presidential legislative decree without being approved by the parliament, as the government has counted all the years since the expiration of the original five year term of parliament (since 2015) as the last working year of its legislative term, in which, according to the constitution, the parliament cannot amend the electoral law. According to them, the president could just issue another decree saying that parties could introduce lists and their votes could be transferable. However, it seems too simplistic and the agreement on the details of the proposed system (even if it is a consensus one) could prove to be time-consuming.

(4) The first batch of reform recommendations by SERC read:

Taking into account that the existing Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) system in Afghanistan; it does not meet the needs of this country, therefore SNTV is an outdated system and shall be changed. In the SNTV system, majority of the votes of the voters are wasted; as we see that the current members of the Wolesi Jirga have received votes from 38% of the voters.

The electoral system shall change in a way, which shall result in participation and development of the political parties, and which shall provide for an effective role of the political parties in the governance system of Afghanistan.

The SNTV system shall change into the Parallel system in a way, that one third of the seats of Wolesi Jirga shall be allocated to those political parties, which are exactly established and function in accordance to the provisions of the political parties’ law and other legislative documents in this regard. The political parties shall provide open list with preference of candidates for the Wolesi Jirga elections. Electoral constituency for the members of the political parties shall be the whole country. The political parties that receive at least 3% of the overall vote cast, shall be included in the electoral competition.

On electoral constituency for the independent candidates competing under SNTV, the recommendation said:

For the independent candidates of the Wolesi Jirga, the electoral constituencies within the province shall be divided to smaller 1 to 5 member electoral constituencies (approved with consensus).




Elections Parliament Political Parties Wolesi Jirga


Ali Yawar Adili

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