Afghans came out to vote en masse last weekend as Afghanistan held its third parliamentary elections since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. As Afghanistan aims to break free of a tumultuous past and promote democracy, elections are a crucial test of Afghan commitment to freedom and honest government.
Over 2,500 candidates competed for only 249 seats in the lower house of the Afghan government, called The House of the People, or the Wolesi Jirga. The Wolesi Jirga attempts to reflect the diversity of the Afghan people, with 68 seats reserved for women, 10 for the Kuchi nomadic people, and one jointly for the Sikh and Hindu communities. Though members of the Wolesi Jirga have relatively limited power, the legislative body encompasses the important narratives of Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious diversity by helping groups come together and resolve political issues in a regulated and non-violent setting.
The elections just over a week ago were initially scheduled for Oct. 15, 2016, but were delayed twice due to security concerns and issues of electoral reform. International donors refused to fund and audit further elections without significant reform, making it practically impossible for the elections to take place on the originally planned date. Furthermore, the Afghan constitution states that elections cannot take place less than a year after parliamentary reform. In order to make necessary improvements and changes to the Parliament and electoral system, elections had to be pushed to accommodate this rule.
Although in the two years since the original election date, voter registration has been standardized and corruption has begun to be addressed, ostensibly improving the overall legitimacy of the electoral process, the long-awaited elections on Oct. 20 did not pass without issue.
The elections were meant to be confined to Saturday but continued through Sunday as many polling centers failed to open on time. The elections were plagued by confusion and disorganization as officials lacked proper polling materials and adequate preparation. Those who were able to make it to the polls often had to wait over two hours to cast their votes. Even Afghanistan’s second vice president, Sarwar Danish, had to wait 45 minutes to cast his ballot.
Official counts of the number of registered voters in the country hover around 8.8 million, but the actual figure is likely lower: around six or seven million out of a population of 35.5 million. The official count is contested due to the fact that in some regions the number of reported registered voters exceeded the actual population. Though the real figure of registered voters is not as high as government officials claim, this election did see a surge in registrations from the younger generation of Afghans. Known as the “War on Terror” generation, these young voters have lived most of their lives in the aftermath of the 2001 invasion. Their participation in this year’s election marks the beginning of a new voting demographic in the country.
While the Afghan government claims voter turnout on election day was as high as four million people, or approximately 45 percent, this number has also likely been exaggerated. The Taliban threatened voters in the months leading up to the elections, warning them not to vote and to stay away from polling centers. The fundamentalist group blocked roads to the polling stations and attacked voters; dozens of casualties were reported due to explosions and mortar fire. As a result of the violence, many Taliban-controlled regions were left out of the election. The government announced that 10 districts in five provinces would not vote. The entire Ghazni province was unable to vote due to an inability to fully secure polling stations. In fact, only 5,074 of the 7,384 polling stations were opened nationwide. This mass exclusion and disenfranchisement is a blow to democracy in Afghanistan and a point of concern for future elections.
Vote-counting is already underway and preliminary results can be expected in the coming weeks, though the government has until Dec. 20 to release the results. The outcome of these elections will be telling of Afghanistan’s future. In the 17 years since the American invasion, there has been an effort to promulgate democratic values in the country. Afghanistan is, in part, still held hostage by the Taliban, with 59 out of 407 districts under Taliban control. Democracy has struggled to grow because it is constantly uprooted by corruption and violence. These elections have demonstrated a promising commitment to democratic values in Afghanistan. Despite the Taliban-sponsored violence, disorganization, and fraudulent politicians, millions of Afghans were willing to wait hours to cast their votes. It is crucial that Afghanistan develops entrenched democratic values in order to end political turmoil and move towards long-term stability. The hope is that these elections will be a source of stability and legitimacy that will eventually allow the international community to withdraw from Afghanistan.
The success of the election is also critical for the budding peace talks between the United States and the Taliban. Compromise is already challenging — the Taliban cites foreign influence as an obstacle to finding peace, while the U.S. is reluctant to withdraw entirely without the demonstrated presence of a functioning democracy. The U.S. insists that any further peace talks with the Taliban must be led by the Afghan government. A strong and supported democracy will put Afghanistan in a better position to conduct such talks and achieve greater sovereignty. Peace in Afghanistan still remains a long shot, as the Taliban dismisses the government in Kabul as a puppet for the Americans. Right now, the greatest step that can be taken towards peace is the creation of a strong government with a legitimate electoral process.
The eyes of the world should be on Afghanistan in the coming months, especially given the country’s presidential election next year. While the Parliament is an important representative and legislative body, real power in Afghanistan is held in the executive branch. These parliamentary elections are a test run for the presidential election in 2019. Voter turnout, organization, and Taliban interference are all indicative of the success or failure of the presidential election in 2019. If any type of mass voter fraud is discovered in the Oct. 20 elections, it will undermine democracy in Afghanistan and lead to setbacks in the presidential election schedule. It is important that the Afghan people can be confident that their vote counts; otherwise, there is no incentive to vote in future elections. While the mass disorganization and violence may be a bad sign for 2019, the strength of voter commitment and government responsiveness to threats of violence paint a more promising picture. It is imperative that Afghanistan receive widespread diplomatic support for their budding democracy. The outcomes of these elections will determine whether the country flourishes or crumbles.