It was a long time in coming, but Afghanistan is poised to adopt a new set of regulations outlining electoral reform and criteria for the formation of political parties. Some commentators welcome the move as strengthening national alliances and voters’ choices, but critics say parties with foreign influence and donors will profit.
The sheer number of parties and candidates caused deep confusion during earlier elections. Main story photo: A woman votes in the 2010 parliamentary polls in Ghazni. (Photos: Rahmat Alizada)
As Afghanistan prepares for parliamentary elections due in 2015, the Ministry of Justice, based on suggestions from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), has issued a new set of regulations designed to strengthen and simplify the electoral landscape.
Under the draft proposal, which is yet to be ratified by parliament, all political parties must have a broad, national perspective.
“Under the new regulations, the founders of a political party which is to be registered have to be 34 individuals from 34 provinces,” Muhammad Naser Hafezy, the director of the Department of Registration of Political Parties and Social Organizations at the Ministry of Justice, told Afghanistan Today.
“If a political party is registered at the Ministry of Justice and is licensed to operate, it has up to one year to open up offices in 20 provinces of Afghanistan. Otherwise, it will be invalidated.”
The reforms aim to cut the growing number of political parties and strengthen those with a nationwide platform. While the formation of political entities and broader democratic participation was welcomed after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the number and nature of the political affiliations, many of which were involved in past conflicts, is seen as having spiralled out of control. According to Hafezy, the ministry licensed 110 political parties over the past decade, creating great confusion for the electorate.
The new regulations are hoped to filter out ethnically orientated parties and strengthen those with communal, national interests. So far, only 47 parties have satisfied the criteria to re-register. Under the IEC guidelines, political parties will have to prove that they have at least 10,000 members. Previously, a party could be registered with as few as 700 members, often leading to regional and ethnic affiliations with an emphasis on specific constituencies. The result is a divided and incoherent political landscape, whereby voters have few clear national options.
The reform is also a reaction to evidence of widespread fraud in the 2010 parliamentary polls, when 1.3 million votes cast in 569 polling stations were invalidated by the IEC..
Previous campaign posters on display in a clothing store in Herat. (Photo: Mohayudin Noori)
Under the guidelines, one third of all seats in parliament would be allocated to political parties. Until three years ago candidates were forbidden to state their party affiliations on ballot papers, resulting in many independents with small percentages of votes winning in constituencies where the vote was spread across dozens of candidates.
A 2012 survey by Democracy International, a US-based think tank, found that 75 per cent of Afghan parliamentarians surveyed do not identify with any political party.The 2005 and 2010 parliamentary polls were decided by the single non-transferable vote system (SNTV), used in multi-party constituencies, and few parties were represented.
A July 2012 report by the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) criticizes SNTV for imposing “severe cognitive demands on voters.” It also calls SNTV a “lottery” and highlights the obstacles it presents to the formation of parties with a national agenda. “No other electoral system used to select national parliaments presents such great obstacles to the development of parties, or to their ability to turn support among voters into representation,“ says the report.
In 2010 a huge number of votes were cast for candidates who lost - nearly two-thirds of votes cast, according to AREU - resulting in poor proportional representation: some seats were won by candidates with as little as 10 per cent of the vote.
A voter during the 2010 parliamentary polls in Mazar-e Sharif. Fingers were inked to stop people from casting multiple ballots. (Photo: Rohullah Rahimi)
“We believe that a system based on political parties can resolve this problem,” IEC spokesman Fazel Ahmad Manowee told Afghanistan Today. “Since there are many independent candidates in Afghanistan, we decided to suggest a system where one third of the seats in parliament are allocated to political parties.
In future, this percentage could increase to an allocation of half or two-thirds of the seats,” Manowee said. If the reforms are ratified, around 80 seats in the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga lower house will be reserved for candidates from political parties.
In the absence of computerized voter lists, the Interior Ministry is contributing by issuing electronic ID cards, said spokesman Sediq Sedeeqi. He added, however, that it would be a long-term process that could take three to five years to complete and it remains unclear if the ID cards will be issued in time for the next elections.
Over the past decades, several types of identification cards have been issued by different regimes, often paving the way for fakes and duplicates. For now, an interim solution has been sought. “The leadership of political parties will be made to take a pledge to assert that the membership lists they provide are not fake,” said Hafezy from the Ministry of Justice.
Reaction to the new regulations from opposition parties has been mixed. The National Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, which mainly represents the Ismaili Hazara minority, boycotted the 2010 elections in protest at members of the IEC also standing as candidates. The subsequent fraud confirmed many observers’ fears of irregularities.
Political parties have one year to open offices in 20 provinces after their registration or they will be invalidated.
One of the party’s leaders, Hafizullah Rasekh, says the reforms will strengthen the political landscape and root out parties with personal goals. “Tougher conditions are required. This will lead to the formation of several active, strong and big parties,” said Rasekh, whose party already has offices in nine provinces. He added that his party, which was recently re-registered but has not yet had a representative in parliament, would create offices in more provinces “as soon as it can.”
But the security situation on the ground makes it difficult for political groups to establish themselves in many areas. According to the IEC’s draft proposal, within a year parties must have 20 provincial offices with at least three representatives in each, making the parties more accessible to voters across the country. It is a challenge for parties like Rasekh’s: “We struggle to provide security for our Kabul office, let alone the provinces.”
A billboard in Bamyan urges women to register themselves in order to vote. (Photo: Nick Allen)
As an example of a small player, the aspiring National Solidarity Party fears that the new regulations may prove to be a two-edged sword. Establishing nationwide offices will require substantial financial clout, which will favour political parties with foreign affiliations and donors.
“Today, most parties are the mujahedin factions who should be brought to justice,” says Rasekh. “They are supported by countries like Pakistan, Iran and even the United States of America. Unfortunately, these parties will be active as long as they receive assistance.”
Voters also remain sceptical. Barialay, a Kabul cabbie, is not convinced the reforms will make a big difference. “I do not know of any independent political party in Afghanistan. If we were independent and worked for our own country, we would not be in the situation we are in now,” laments the taxi driver.
Maleha, a secondary school teacher, agrees. “I don’t want to become a member of a political party,” she said. “I don’t trust any of them. Political parties only exist so that politicians can become famous or make money.”