Why the Afghan Elections Matter so much

By Hampton Stall

Reason for Celebration

The elections on April 5th were not the first elections in Afghanistan, but they may have been the most important in contemporary Afghan history. These elections are particularly significant because they symbolize the real end of Taliban control in the country of almost 30 million people.

Around 58% of the Afghan population participated in the election, a percentage similar to that of America’s turnout rate. In a country where US Troops reported being mistaken for Soviet forces in rural areas, this number is a huge deal. Infrastructure in Afghanistan is close to nonexistent and poverty afflicts the vast majority of the Afghan polity, but almost 2 in 3 Afghans found their way to a polling station to cast a ballot.

The Taliban have been threatening for months that there would be massive retaliation on election day, but after the ballots were cast, fewer people were killed in all of Afghanistan than were killed in the city of Baghdad over the same period of time. There were, however, a few deaths a couple of days after polls closed, claimed as retaliation. Deaths like these are always tragic, but it is a blessing there were not more.

There have been a few different reports of fraud at the polls and a number of ballots have been thrown out accordingly. Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), discounted 150 ballot boxes, which accounts to around 100,000 votes. These 100,000 voided votes account for about 1.4% of the total votes cast. While this isn’t optimal, the discarded ballots should not be considered a major setback overall.

It is very likely the new president will not be known until mid-May. There will definitely be a run-off between two candidates after ballots are counted, and the likely two contenders will be Abdullah and Ahmadzai, with Abdullah setto win. Current polling numbers show Abdullah at 44.47% and Ahmadzai at 33.18%. Eight men offered their candidacy on election day, down from a qualified eleven, a number achieved after sixteen candidates were disqualified. The fact that there was a total of 27 candidates for the Afghan presidency underscores that the office of head of the state is currently considered to be at its highest level of legitimacy in recent memory.

No one is arguing that the Afghan elections signify that Afghanistan has changed or will change overnight, and the fractured nation has a long, long way to go, but this election marks a major milestone. Elections are never considered an endpoint in a nation’s democratization efforts, but often represent an important institutional stepping stone.

The Challenges Ahead

The withdrawal of US troops – and especially the withdrawal of war technology US forces had with them – may lead to another few years of semi-manageable turmoil. Afghans have become accustomed to the fighting, and have learned to deal with violence at the hands of the Taliban. The national police force of Afghanistan is much less trained than US policymakers publicly believe and much of the equipment used is still from the Soviet area, but the Taliban are in similar circumstances following the election.

Karzai refused to sign a security agreement with the US, and it is unlikely the security agreement will be signed by the expected date of withdrawal for NATO forces. To put the withdrawal in perspective, US force will most likely be cut to less than 10,000 troops. The next president of Afghanistan will have several challenges facing him, including but not limited to a nearly non-existent economy, a polity looking to leadership after many have been disappointed with Karzai’s performance, and a nearly non-existent state.

The elections won’t solve any of these problems, and likely the next president of Afghanistan won’t, either, but these elections mark a real step forward. Afghans flocked to the polls, and, as one participant stated, “vote[d] to make clear [Afghanistan’s] future”. This phrase may not seem extraordinary in the West, but it marks a real shift in the mindset of many Afghans towards their federal government and the future of their country.

Electoral Reform?

Currently, Afghanistan uses a Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) system of elections, a system in which each citizen gets one vote per election cycle, and can vote for one candidate. Any candidates not receiving enough votes is eliminated and votes for that candidate are lost. Afghanistan’s system does allow for a run-off between the top two scoring candidates (at the presidential level, but not at the local/legislative level) , but a third candidate could have garnered much more broad support than either of the two selected for a run-off. While at this point it is fairly clear that Abdullah Abdullah does have a broad swathe of support across the country, future elections could be plagued with outcomes that falsely look much more representative than the results could have been.

A key problem with SNTV in Afghanistan is who it props up. WIth a SNTV system, those with much greater name recognition are more likely to garner more support at the polls. In a country with very little media coverage in a large area of the state, those with name recognition tend to be the warlords. No electoral system will perfectly break the chain between warlord authority translating into electoral success, but many can loosen the chain’s chokehold on the Afghan polity.

While it is always very difficult to change electoral systems, a time of change of government paradigm is the least abrasive time for reform. Much is changing within the Afghan state, political views and identity are shifting rapidly as political civic engagement opens up following Taliban repression and terror, and a new peace is settling slowly over the country. Now is the perfect time to change the way leadership is elected, especially while all eyes are on Afghanistan, peering for any sign of a-democratic action within the state. Electoral reforms could be the flame to the beacon of hope Afghanistan could become to the West.

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