Guest Blog: Electoral Reform Must Start Now
With the controversy between the Wolesi Jirga and the Special Election Court still continuing and throwing Afghanistan’s legislative into disarray, our guest blogger Grant Kippen(*) pleads for long-overdue election reform starting and bold steps now.
There were two momentous announcements concerning Afghanistan this past week that will in their own and interconnected way have a profound impact on the short and long term future of the country.
The first and most widely reported announcement occurred on Wednesday evening when President Obama in a nationâwide address announced the start of the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan. The President also used the address to reaffirm his commitment to reducing the number of US based troops serving in Afghanistan over time and that responsibility for security within the country would be handed over to the Afghanistan National Security Forces by 2014.
This announcement completely overshadowed another announcement coming from the Afghanistan capital Kabul on Thursday morning where the members of the Special Elections Court announced their investigative findings into allegations of electoral fraud during the 2010 Parliamentary elections last September.
The Special Court announcement was the latest salvo in an onâgoing power struggle between the Executive and Legislative branches of government following the fraud-marred elections, and their findings recommended that 62 currently serving Members of Parliament be removed. To put this number in perspective that is one quarter of the seats in the 249 seat Wolesi Jirga.
The controversy of electoral fraud that played out so vividly in the 2009 Presidential and Provincial Council elections unfortunately carried over to the Parliamentary elections last year. The one thing that most Afghans and internationals will agree on was that extensive electoral fraud that took place during the September 2010 elections.
Under the Constitution and Election Law the institutions legally responsible for the electoral process are the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). At the time both the IEC and ECC were called upon to investigate many thousands of complaints filed regarding alleged fraudulent activities, and in the view of most informed Afghan and international observers of that process, these institutions discharged their responsibilities according to the laws, regulations and procedures that were in place.
The Special Elections Court was established by Presidential decree under the pretense that the IEC and ECC had not done their jobs properly. President Karzai condoned the creation of the Special Court notwithstanding that fact, according to legal experts, there appeared to be no basis in the law or under the Constitution for a mandate that allowed the overturning of final results as announced by the IEC. In reality though the Court was created only after senior IEC and ECC officials had refused to buckle to intense pressure being exerted on them by the Executive, including the threat of criminal prosecution by the AttorneyâGeneral. The Houdiniesque slight of hand maneuvering and Ghaddafiâinspired logic creating the Special Elections Court was promptly dismissed by the Parliament, IEC, ECC and Afghan legal experts as illegal under the Constitution, a position that the international community agreed with from the start.
The Special Courtâs decisions on Thursday clearly undermined the constitutional authority and independence of the IEC and the ECC. This is evidenced by the changes made to the vote totals by the Special Elections Court of sitting MPs and losing candidates and then reinstating 18 of 19 candidates disqualified by the ECC last fall; authorities only given to the IEC and ECC under the Electoral Law.
So, with the Special Elections Court announcement the Afghan people are at yet another crisis point in their onâgoing struggle to reâbuild the country after thirty years of war and civil conflict. For the vast majority of Afghans this situation just reinforces the hopelessness they feel towards the direction the reâbuilding effort has taken in general, and in particular about the effectiveness of their government to address the issues that matter most to them â a more secure environment in which to live and work, greater economic opportunity for themselves and their children, and some basic level of social assistance be it education or access to medical care.
Clearly cooler heads need to prevail so that this latest crisis doesnât escalate into something that all stakeholder groups â Afghan or international â will come to regret in the future. It is time to put the interests of the Afghan people ahead of any personal feelings or perceived loss of face that has occurred over past events. The focus needs to be squarely on building for the future, while at the same time learning the important lessons of the past.
From an electoral perspective if action isnât taken soon there will be no opportunity to correct those past mistakes. The status quo is an unacceptable situation not only for the citizens of Afghanistan but also for the taxpayers of those countries that are contributing funds so that elections can take place in an open and competitive manner. What we shouldnât lose sight of are the millions of Afghans who turned out to vote in past elections and who are clearly committed to building a better future for themselves and their children. The immediate goal here is to ensure the 2014 Presidential elections are a significant improvement over efforts in 2009 and 2010. Electoral reform needs to begin immediately with the involvement of all domestic stakeholder groups supported by the international community.
Building credible, legitimate and inclusive democratic institutions and processes is the only way forward for Afghanistan as a young, emerging and vibrant democracy. The independence of the IEC and ECC needs to be respected, as does the role of Parliament in ensuring a proper check and balance on the actions of the Executive.
The actions by the Special Elections Court only serves to undermine those key institutions that are established under the Constitution, namely the electoral bodies and the Legislature not to mention the independence of the judiciary. The existence and decisions of the Special Court only calls into question the respect that the Government itself has for the Constitution at a critical time when they are trying to reassure their own citizens that the Constitution will not be weakened through the reconciliation process. One has to wonder what message these same actions are sending to those insurgents the Government of Afghanistan hopes will reâjoin Afghan society when the Government so clearly demonstrates its own unwillingness to respect the Constitution?
President Karzai has the perfect opportunity to step back from the current precipice and provide the leadership that is required to decisively match actions with the words he delivered in a speech to the NATO Summit in Lisbon last November: âOur Constitution, a harmonious blend of our Islamic values of justice and the universal principles of human rights, is our most important achievement of the last nine years … we need to enhance the checks and balances among the three branches of the state. … We are also committed to strengthening Parliament as an institution. I will work with the future Parliament to strengthen their constitutional role.â
Letâs not lose sight of the longâterm goal here, and that is to support the Afghan people as they rebuild their country. This will take time and there will be bumps along that road but letâs make sure that our combined efforts work to build a solid foundation for the future otherwise, we âwill simply be putting mud in the water in order to cross the riverâ, according to an old Afghan proverb.
(*) Grant Kippen is the former Chairman of the 2009 and 2005 Electoral Complaints Commission in Afghanistan and member of the National Democratic Instituteâs Senior Experts Group that observed the 2010 Parliamentary Elections in Afghanistan.
The Dari translation of this article appears simultaneously in the Kabul daily Hasht-e Sobn (8am), read itÂ here.