Glimpses of democracy

October 28, 2018

With democracy still in its infancy and amid a deteriorating security situation, elections were held in Afghanistan on October 20 after a three and a half year delay

Glimpses of democracy

After three and a half years delay, the Afghan government finally managed to hold the elections for Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament, on October 20.

The parliamentary elections were held amid serious security concerns. Taliban had threatened to disrupt the polls and directed their fighters to target the security forces personnel protecting the electoral process and the polling stations.

The five-year term of the Wolesi Jirga (the Pashto term that translates into People’s Assembly or National Assembly) had ended in June 2015, but the elections could not be held due to a host of factors. President Ashraf Ghani extended the assembly’s term by decrees. The parliamentarians had a good time as they remained members of the Wolesi Jirga for eight and a half years instead of five.

The national unity government of President Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah, the de facto prime minister, had announced on April 22, 2018 the holding of the much-delayed parliamentary elections on October 20. As if by chance or deliberately, Taliban on the same day announced the launching of their annual spring offensive. The Taliban intentions were clear as they wanted not only to continue but also expedite their military campaign in the spring and summer as they do every year to foil plans by the Afghan government to consolidate its power. Taliban gave the name of "Al-Khandaq" to their new offensive after the Battle of Khandaq in Madina in the distant past in a bid to portray it as ‘jihad’.

As in previous years, the US and Afghanistan had reportedly asked Pakistan to try and persuade Taliban not to launch the annual spring offensive and instead join the Afghan peace process. And as before, Taliban stubbornly went ahead with the announcement of their offensive. In fact, this was the Taliban reply to President Ghani’s offer of peace talks on February 28. The Taliban neither accepted nor rejected Ghani’s offer but just ignored it.

The polls for the 250-member Wolesi Jirga had got delayed due to rising insecurity, lack of consensus on electoral reforms and disputes between the camps of President Ghani and CEO Dr Abdullah on a host of issues, including whether to mention Afghan or the specific ethnicity of a citizen in the new national identity cards. President Ghani, due to his constitutional powers, went ahead with his plan to mention every citizen as an Afghan in the identity cards despite Dr Abdullah’s protest that no consensus had been reached on this sensitive issue in the multi-ethnic country.

The international donors had withheld funding for the elections with electoral reforms to avoid the disputes on the outcome of the polls during the disputed 2014 presidential election and the earlier elections that were termed as rigged.

The polls were supposed to be held in Afghanistan’s 407 districts, but this wasn’t possible due to the precarious security situation. Many districts are controlled by Taliban and in three others the Islamic State, or Daesh, has a presence.

The elections process provided easy targets for attacks. The centres for voters’ registration and those meant for distribution of the new national identity cards, totalling more than 1,000, were attacked several times in Kabul and elsewhere in the country. There were many target killings, but the violence was manageable by the usual Afghan standards.

There were more easy targets on the polling day as over 5,000 polling stations having 21,000 polling booths had been set up for 8.8million voters. There was lot of enthusiasm when the voters’ registration began and then after September 28 when the election campaign by the parliamentary candidates formally began. However, the rise in the number of terrorist attacks caused fear and slowed down the process.

Taliban claimed 300 attacks on the two polling days as the process was extended by a day when many polling stations didn’t open and voters complained that they couldn’t vote even after waiting for hours. Scores of people, including 10 parliamentary candidates but mostly civilians, were killed and many more were injured in polls-related violence. The biggest Taliban attack took place in the Governor House in Kandahar. The bodyguard of Kandahar Governor reportedly gunned down a number of senior Afghan security officials and caused injuries to others, including three Americans. The firing began when the security meeting of Afghan and US officials had ended. The gunman too was shot dead.

In previous elections, Taliban had generally refrained from attacking polling stations as it meant harming civilians, losing whatever public support they enjoyed. It is also a fact that Taliban didn’t have the means and manpower to fully disrupt the nation-wide polls. Though more brutal, the ISIS lacked the capacity to launch more attacks so it targeted Shias whenever an opportunity arose.

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) had hoped that 12 million to 15million eligible citizens would register as voters, but didn’t happen. Instead, 9.5million registered, though the list was cut down to 8.8 million voters when the IEC’s weeding process led to the disqualification of the remaining due to duplication of names, underage voters and inadequate paperwork.

The IEC said after the polling that nearly 4 million people had voted. The figure was impressive considering the dire security situation and the lack of trust in the IEC’s capability in holding free, fair and transparent elections. Some Afghan politicians, candidates and voters, in fact, highlighted many shortcomings in the election process and termed the exercise a joke.

The beleaguered Afghan government had to hold two major elections within a period of six months. The parliamentary vote has now been held while the presidential election is scheduled for April 20, 2019. As all the six elections held to-date in the post-Taliban period -- three for President, three for Parliament -- lacked credibility due to allegations of fraud, use of money, strong-arm tactics, etc. there were serious concerns about the acceptability of the results of the polls in the recent vote for the Wolesi Jirga.

The preparations for the presidential polls would begin in November when the candidates would start registering. The candidates are already lining up. Mohammad Hanif Atmar, the National Security Advisor to President Ghani has already quit to explore his chances and prepare for polls. The gulf will widen between President Ghani and CEO Dr Abdullah as the presidential polls draw near because both may contest again and face-off each other. Former Balkh province Atta Mohammad Noor could challenge Dr Abdullah for the candidature even though both belong to the Jamiat-i-Islami, a former mujahideen party that is strangely part of the government as well as the opposition.

Also read: The fatal 30th attempt

The recent polls provided glimpses of democracy Afghanistan style! One-third of the polling stations remained closed on polling day and voters couldn’t vote so timing was extended to two days which is unusual. Some of the biometric devices put into service at the eleventh hour to prevent rigging malfunctioned. Also the election results would become available on November 10, which means 20 days after the polling. This has raised concern about the fairness of the polls.

The Afghan government after many delays seemed to be in a hurry this time to hold the polls. One reason could be the coming international conference on Afghanistan in in Geneva in November in which the Afghan government could be asked to provide answers about the ‘democratic processes’ it had managed to accomplish all these years.

As democracy is still in its infancy in Afghanistan and the security situation keeps deteriorating, one cannot expect to have an election that will meet certain international standards. At one stage, there was uncertainty if the polls could be held on October 20. The presence of more than 2,500 candidates including 417 women provided legitimacy and some level of acceptability to the process. However, one will have to wait for the declaration of the results as disputes may arise over the outcome due to existing concerns about rigging and fraud.

Glimpses of democracy