The nomination of candidates for September’s parliamentary elections has been completed. It went reasonably smoothly and the preliminary list of nominees has been released by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). A first look at the process by AAN researcher Fabrizio Foschini.
It was a relatively short registration process, down from one month in 2005 to just 15 days this time, from 20 April to 5 May. Fears that the number of registrations might also significantly go down have not proven true: a total of 2,447 candidates successfully registered, compared to 2,707 in 2005 (the full preliminary list of the 2010 Wolesi Jirga candidates can be found here). The IEC has rejected another 226 people because of irregularities in registration, such as an insufficient number of voter cards presented or incompatibility with an institutional position already held.(*) The rejections and appeals will now be considered by the ECC (Electoral Complaints Commission) and the final list will be announced on 22 June.
In terms of sheer numbers then the registration list looks good. However, there are evident discrepancies between areas at the regional level.
Insecurity has badly affected numbers in the South. However elsewhere, some provinces, like Baghlan, which have seen a recent sharp increase in violence and a high level of foreign military operations, stand out because of their strikingly high number of candidates. Here local violence may actually be a symptom of the robust political competition for power in the province. By contrast some of the more stable provinces, like Balkh, have far fewer candidates, which could hint at an already settled, party-disciplined contest. Kabul alone accounts for a quarter of the candidates (682), like last time, with a ratio of more than twenty to one candidates per contested seat. That is double the ratio of most other provinces. Many reasons concur to explain this trend, including a higher presence of politically active people in the capital, a wider range of political ideas than in most provinces, and better security for political activists.
Speaking to ten MPs from different provinces about the coming election campaign, their most common concern is insecurity. Insurgents or armed groups linked to political rivals were unanimously mentioned as a major threat to the electoral process. All the interviewees stated both their inability and unwillingness to campaign in most districts of their constituency outside urban areas. “Five years ago, I went to Warduj district at ten at night to campaign without an escort,” said Haji Bibi Kubra Dehqan, an MP from Badakhshan, “now, if I went there at ten in the morning, I would have to travel with crowds of policemen.”
The MPs also described how insecurity would restrain many potential voters from voting and letting their family members, especially women, vote, and how it would leave a big door open for many different kinds of fraud. The ‘fraud factor’, along with increased violence, was mentioned as an important factor in discouraging newcomers from entering the political arena. An MP from Badghis province claimed that women and youth have been the most vulnerable category to these kinds of concerns.
Fear of fraud was unanimous among the MPs interviewed and this leads to the obvious question of how the newly appointed commissions, IEC and ECC, will handle this year’s elections, after the highly contested performance by the IEC in 2009. While most of the interviewed MPs took a ‘wait and see’ stance towards the new head of the IEC, and in some cases even expressed a positive judgement on his past professionalism, one of them maintained that the commission could never be independent as long as it was appointed and paid for by the government.
One specific concern frequently raised was the possible collusion between IEC representatives and local factions – a realistic fear given the experience of the 2009 polls. Although commissioners are not allowed to be stationed in their own province this time, there is nothing to stop them from working in a nearby province where a potential bias could still be problematic. In some provinces, such as Jowzjan, both the governor and the IEC head are from the same, nearby province (Takhar). Institutional protection from interference in such instances is likely to be weak.
A final concern is the costs of the coming electoral campaign: these have reached a point where candidates without a strong backing from the government, the main opposition parties or powerful business lobbies feel they have few chances to compete. Some candidates recalled how it used to be their point of honour that they did not spend much on the elections. In the words of Babrak Shinwari, an MP from Nangarhar: “At the time of elections, before and after, we just used to invite let’s say 50 people and offer them food, there was no other expense apart from that. It cost maybe five lakh Afghanis (around 10,000 US dollar). I was famous for not paying money for elections then.”
Despite these concerns most MPs have decided to run again for parliament. Many others who are standing down, according to the Takhar delegate, Habiba Danesh, are actually backing a, “brother, sister, uncle or cousin,” in their place. Among those MPs choosing not to stand are legitimate grievances about their past work and concerns for the future.
“When I first came to parliament I knew that in a war-ravaged country, without rule of law, the parliament does not have a basic importance, still I arrived there by the will of the people, and for five years took part in its works,” said Sultan Mohammad Awrang, an MP close to Jami’at from Badakhshan with caustic opinions about the upcoming elections. “But then I saw that the government does not accept the decisions of the National Assembly, and infringes the law. (…) This government is illegitimate, how can I go and run for election, take a vote of confidence and sit in the parliament? Moreover, I opposed the [new] Electoral Law. The registration of candidates has taken place according to it. If I would submit to that same law I rejected earlier, I would become a liar too.”
The objections expressed by Ataullah Ludin, a Hezb-e Islami MP from Nangarhar, focus less on institutional critique. Instead, he shows a deep pessimism regarding the legitimacy of next round of elections. “There are three factors important for a positive outcome of the elections: that all citizens can participate, that they are free and they are just and fair. Now we have a security situation which is completely deteriorated in 19 or 20 of the provinces, around 150 districts are controlled by the Taleban or other insurgent groups. How are we supposed to hold just and fair elections?”
However, more personal matters also contributed to his decision to step down from parliament. “People do not fully realize what our responsibilities as members of parliament are. They are actually three: the legislative function, the monitoring and opposition to government decrees that we do not accept, and the representation of our electorate, so that people’s desires and opinions can be assessed in parliament. But our people do not understand that, they say: ‘Build roads for us, build bridges, get us some jobs!’ Otherwise they say we did nothing for them. Afghanistan has its rules, its traditions: for every government official committed to his duty there is another who is not, and people ultimately do not see the effort being made and say ‘you did nothing’. Because of all those people who sit in the administration’s offices – the district governor, sub-district chief, commander, deputy, attorney, judge – my work gets blocked. So I have grown tired, I am fed up, to the point that my blood pressure got high because of these obstacles. (…) I have seen the parliament’s tenure in the past five years and I do not want to end up working there again, this time without even the people’s trust.”
Despite the expectations that were not met or the misunderstood promises, it is reported that in some areas locals recently organized themselves with the purpose of having the current MPs replaced with more effective delegates – that is to say, delegates more committed to one’s community interests.
Most of the MPs interviewed stressed the necessity to rally wavering people’s support for elections and to revive their confidence in the process, which was shaken by the widespread fraud of last year’s elections. However, it may not just be a matter of trust in the legitimacy of state institutions, given the more subtle dissatisfactions over what the priorities are that these institutions should address.
It is true that the past five years’ work in the parliament have shaped at least part of the MPs into a body of skilled and committed politicians in the ‘modern’ sense of the word, qualified to work inside the frame of the newly created Afghan institutions. This however does not seem to prevent people in rural areas from supporting local strongmen who, at best, are able to promise protection and a minimum share of the material aid they can attract, while at worst they possess a capacity of coercion on the local vote which nobody seems to be able or willing to restrain.
A few MPs are more hopeful. Habiba Danesh says that even though the elections take place under severe limitations, they still represent an important manifestation of democracy. According to her “this is just the beginning of democracy in Afghanistan. Maybe it will take three elections more before things start improving.”
We can only hope that she is right and that at some point things start improving, but what will be the cost of such a long wait?
(*) The most notable among the rejected candidates is AbdulJabbar Sabet, a former Attorney General who shaped himself as an anti-corruption campaigner – but also had a strong populist note. He was fired by Hamed Karzai after he had announced that he would run for president in 2009 (where he received 0.13 per cent of the vote). Sabet denounced his exclusion as a government conspiracy and protests that the rejection of candidates should be a prerogative of the ECC and not the IEC.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020