Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections have once again been postponed. According to the 2001 Bonn Accords, the elections were scheduled to be held concurrently with the presidential polls in June 2004. When the presidential election was moved to October 2004, the parliamentary vote was slated for April or May 2005. Now, the Afghan government says that the elections for parliament will be held on September 18, 2005 (Pazhwok News Agency, March 19).
There are multiple reasons for the delay, but the leading problems are security, funding, logistical and administrative problems, inadequate census data, and incomplete district demarcations.
From a security point of view, Afghanistan has been relatively quiet since the presidential election in October. However, sporadic attacks from suspected Taliban fighters have been on the rise recently. Locals are worried that regional commanders and warlords may try to intimidate voters and affect the outcome of the polls in their favor. Many observers believe that the decision to postpone the elections reflects the central government’s failure to exert its influence outside the capital. The government has a 1,000-man rapid reaction force, 35,000 newly trained policemen, and, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry, another “45,000 former police officers.” In addition, NATO-led security forces would be available to help in the event of any emergency (IWPR Afghan Recovery Report, March 26).
Funding is also a serious problem. Based on estimates from the Joint Election Management Body (JEMB), Afghanistan needs $148 million to conduct the elections. If refugees are allowed to vote, an additional $30 million will be needed to cover the costs. So far, only the United States has pledged funds, and Washington’s $12 million is far short of the total projected costs.
Training election personnel is also a daunting challenge. An estimated 8,000 local and international workers will be needed for the actual election, with another 180,000 needed for associated campaign activities. JEMB is predicting that between 5,000 and 10,000 candidates will run for the 351 seats in the parliament and as many as 40 million ballots will be distributed (UN News Service, March 17).
The new parliament will be bicameral in form. The lower house, the Wolose Jirga, will consist of 249 people from 34 provinces. Voters will also elect one person from each province to the senate, the Mishrano Jirga. This upper house will have 102 members, consisting of 34 elected from the provinces, 34 appointed by the president, and 34 elected by the districts. The last group will be whichever candidate receives the highest number of votes in the province.
Following Hamid Karzai’s victory in the October 2004 presidential election, his ethnic rivals have focused their full attention on the parliamentary vote. Consequently, ethnic rivalry is bound to be an issue in the legislative elections. Some of President Karzai’s challengers for the presidential race are preparing for the parliamentary vote. Younos Qanooni, the Tajik leader; Haji Mohammad Mohaqqeq, from Hazaras; and Abdur Rashid Dostum of the Uzbeks are said to be either planning to run themselves or backing their own ethnic candidates in the elections. There are also other leaders such as General Mohammed Atta, Dostum’s chief rival in the north, who want to enter the race. To stand in the election, prospective candidates must prove that they have no links to militias or armed groups. Most of the former so-called warlords in the north have disarmed their men as part of the disarmament, demobilization, and re-integration process. (Paktribune, March 29).
Based on the new Afghan constitution, parliament must approve the cabinet. Some Tajik and Uzbek leaders are not happy with their people’s representation in the government and are thinking of pooling their votes in the parliament to win concessions from President Karzai.
A further delay in the legislative elections would give the government time to improve the country’s security situation. It will also give the government the opportunity to prepare its supporters for the parliamentary race. Some opposition figures have complained, “The delay leaves Karzai with too much power for too long.” Even with the delay, the upper house would not be fully seated because elections for the district councils cannot be held due to problems relating to district demarcation. According to the election commission, the district elections would be held later and in the interim the upper house would consist of the representative from provincial councils and the presidential appointees (AP, March 20).
Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections are considered to be the true test of the Afghan government, the international forces in the country, and the U.S.-led coalition. If they succeed, Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy will have a chance grow. Its failure, however, will have far greater consequences not only for Afghanistan, but also for NATO and the U.S.-led coalition against terror.