The challenge of holding elections in Afghanistan
Two major announcements concerning Afghanistan made on the same day last month reflected the wide divergence between the major rival sides in the increasingly violent Afghan conflict.
One announcement concerned the new date for parliamentary elections, the other the start of the Taliban’s annual spring offensive.
This showed the conflicting priorities of the Afghan government and the Taliban. The national unity government of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is keen to keep the democratic process going despite the huge security, economic and political challenges. The Taliban, on the other hand, wants to maintain its focus on forcing the US-led NATO forces to withdraw from the country.
After months of uncertainty, the Afghan government gave the Independent Election Commission (IEC) the go-ahead to announce new dates for the much-delayed elections for parliament and district councils. This set in motion a six-month process that is due to culminate on Oct. 20, when an estimated 14 million voters will be able to vote at 7,000 polling stations.
The next presidential election is due in April 2019. This means there would be continuous electioneering for a year, as the elections for parliament and district councils would be followed six months later by the vote for president. There are doubts as to whether the beleaguered Afghan government can handle this challenge and hold the two elections in time, and in a free and transparent manner. The previous five elections — three for president and two for parliament — in the post-Taliban period since 2001 were marred by allegations of fraud and the use of money and strong-arm tactics. If the coming polls again lack credibility, the general disenchantment with politicians, political parties and democracy would increase and the non-democratic forces would try to exploit the situation.
The parliamentary elections have been frequently delayed since June 2015, when the current 249-member Wolesi Jirga (National Assembly) completed its five-year term. Despite the announcement of fresh dates on a few occasions, the polls could not be held despite the passage of almost three years since the expiry of the lifetime of the assembly. Last year, the IEC announced that the legislative elections would definitely be held on July 7, 2018, but it soon became obvious that this deadline, too, would be difficult to meet. Due to the failure to stick to the previously announced polling dates, there is again skepticism in some circles as to whether the Oct. 20 deadline can be met.
The legislative polls had to be delayed due to a host of issues — lack of security, delays in electoral reforms, lack of donors’ funding and disagreement on how to mention nationality and ethnicity on the new national identity cards. Ghani and Abdullah, who were rivals in the bitterly fought 2014 presidential election and had to agree to form a coalition government due to the intervention by then-US Secretary of State John Kerry, took different positions on how to describe citizens on the ID cards. This became yet another contentious issue between the two, adding to the list of disagreements that has kept the so-called unity government divided.
During the previous elections for president and parliament, the Taliban usually refrained from attacking polling stations as it meant harming civilians and losing public support. Many Afghans are hoping that group will therefore not try to disrupt the polls this time around.
The elections in October would have to be held across nearly 400 districts, many of which are controlled by the Taliban and a few, partially, by Daesh. As parliamentary polls have been held twice in the past, the IEC has gained experience in organizing them. The new, and bigger, challenge will be holding the first-ever district council elections, which will have a far higher number of candidates holding public meetings in every nook and cranny of the country as they seek votes. The provision of security for candidates, election meetings and polling stations will be a formidable task as these will be easier targets for the Taliban and Daesh.
The centers for the registration of voters and the distribution of national identity cards, which will be needed for casting votes, have already been attacked at least five times in Kabul and other places. On April 22, when some of these centers opened, two were attacked in Kabul and Pul-e Khumri, the capital of Baghlan Province, with 63 people killed and more than 120 injured. Daesh claimed responsibility for the Kabul terrorist attack, which killed 57 and wounded 119 in the Shiite-populated Dashte Barchi area in the west of the city. The attack was also sectarian in nature. Some of these attacks were probably conducted by the Taliban, although there was no claim of responsibility. Usually, the Taliban does not claim attacks in which mostly civilians are killed.
There was lot of enthusiasm when the registration of voters started, but the attacks have caused fear and there are reports the process has slowed down. The registration time of two months is now likely to be extended to enable more citizens to register.
During the previous elections for president and parliament, the Taliban usually refrained from attacking polling stations as it meant harming civilians and losing public support. Many Afghans are hoping that group will therefore not try to disrupt the polls, though the same cannot be said about Daesh, which is less powerful than the Taliban and does not have a presence in most provinces. The Taliban, too, does not have the capacity in all 34 provinces to bring to a complete halt the electoral process.