August 12, 2016
Hasib Danish Alikozai
Afghanistan was on the brink of a civil war when both presidential candidates claimed victory in the 2014 run-off election, which outside observers called flawed by fraud and irregularities led to a contested result.
The impasse was only resolved after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a compromise power-sharing agreement and a pledge to reform the country’s electoral system.
Two years later, the country’s two top leaders remain deadlocked over the electoral reforms, stalling the already overdue parliamentarian elections and raising worries over the next presidential contest in 2019.
Since taking office, President Ashraf Ghani has issued two presidential decrees to introduce electoral reforms. Both have been rejected by the legislative branch, and some analysts say that is largely due to supporters of Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s rival, who remain opposed to the changes.
The president’s office is reportedly crafting a third decree, and may try to bypass the parliament with an executive decree under article 79 of the constitution while the parliament is in its summer recess. The constitution allows the executive branch to bypass the legislative branch when the parliament is in recess and at times of emergency.
A spokesperson for President Ghani told VOA that the second vice president Sarwar Danesh is heading a commission that is preparing the text of the third executive decree.
“The Afghan government remains committed to bringing change and reform in the country’s electoral system. We have continuously worked to that end,” said Dawa Khan Menapal, deputy spokesperson to the presidential palace.
“The latest is that Ministry of Justice, the Supreme Court and the Commission of Constitution Supervision has advised the president that in the absence of the parliament, the constitution allows him to issue an executive order which does not require the approval of the law makers,” said Menapal.
‘Ignoring millions of people’
On Thursday, while talking to a group of Afghan youth, Abdullah appeared frustrated over the process and publicly accused Ghani of not expediting the reform process.
“Ignoring our opinion is ignoring the opinion of millions of constituents that we represent. I would like to be very clear to the people of Afghanistan. The past couple of days a series of events were set in motion which prompted me to call the president,” Abdullah told the gathering. “I told the president that there is need for a serious discussion which will serve as the foundation for all other discussions and clarify everything.”
“Why do we still not have electoral reforms? Is it my fault? We have promised to the people about electoral reforms. We have tens of other meetings, but when it comes to election reforms, a meeting is called every four months,” he added.
On Friday, Ghani’s office called Abdullah’s remarks counterproductive.
“Unfortunately Abdullah Abdullah’s recent remarks were not in line with the spirit and principles that shape the foundation of governance because governance is premised on legal principles and enacted accordingly,” said Haroon Chakhansuri, Ghani’s spokesperson. “National Unity Government will continue to work and a series of effective and serious discussions will soon be held in regards to his [Abdullah’s] remarks.”
Jan Dad Speenghar, former head of the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) who in 2015 was tapped to head the election reform commission, believes that the president has the legal ability to push through the reforms via executive decree, but doing so could lead to even more political gridlock if both sides are not onboard with the decree.
“If an executive decree is issued in regards to the implementation of electoral reform law, the government is not obligated to send it for legislative approval,” Speenghar said. “In general the legal path is paved and clear for electoral law to be enacted what remains as a potential point of concern is the political path that we hope will not lead to a gridlock.”
‘We were let down’
Analysts believe that after flawed elections in 2009 and 2014, Afghanistan needs to restore credibility to the polls.
“Previous elections in Afghanistan have unfortunately created a mindset amongst the political class that if they have influence in election commissions, they can safeguard their interests and if not they may not be the winners even if they have the votes of the entire country,” Speenghar said.
“The observing entities, civil society and the international community all have a role to play to have a relative balance in the commission. Neutrality and qualification for the members of the commission should be upheld. Political influence in commissions is inevitable in current situation, even if we have half neutral members, we will still have an achievement,” he said.
Noor Mohammad Noor, spokesperson of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), believes that neither leader is interested in election reform and both are looking to retain influence inside the election commission for future elections.
“Lawmakers realize that both leaders and those outside the government constantly try to gain access to the election commission to turn election in to selection and send their favorite people to parliament to gain political leverage,” Noor said. “This will have a huge toll on democracy in Afghanistan which will not be amendable.”
Sardar Mohammad, a resident of Kabul believes that everyone so far has failed to gain the trust of the public.
“Ordinary people are paying the ultimate price in all of this. We have put ourselves in real risk to cast a vote. We had our fingers cut by the Taliban for voting, we faced threats but we still voted and believed in democracy. We were let down,” Mohammad said.