By: Hamdullah Mohib
In a democracy, the result of an election gives legitimacy to the representative of the people or their leader. In Afghanistan’s presidential system, the voters lend their support to the elected president for a five year long term. The number of votes he/she gets is therefore a direct indicator of the population’s support. The process of voter representation varies between different countries to meet its specific circumstances and culture. For example, because companies are a big part of the culture and economy of the City of London, they vote in its Mayoral elections.
According to the Electoral Law of Afghanistan all Afghan citizens aged 18 and above are eligible to vote. Every vote counts as one. A presidential candidate must secure over 50% of the votes to win the elections. It does not specify the additional votes required after a candidate reaches 50%, so we assume that 50%+1 vote is the winning number—called the ‘first past the post’ system. This percentage only takes into account those who turnout to vote, and so is not necessarily representative of the entire population. During the 2009 elections, for example, only 34% of the potential voters exercised their right. This could be interpreted differently by parties; those opposing the democratic system might argue that this was proof that the majority of Afghans do not believe in democracy and that if it was really about what the people wanted then this system should be abolished. Even though the argument is flawed, since it is not a referendum on the system, it nonetheless highlights the importance of participation in the elections and equal representation of the entire country in order to guarantee the legitimacy of the elected government throughout the country.
On 20 November 2013 at University College London, 23 Afghan professionals from different walks of life including journalists, medical doctors, engineers, civil society activists, PhD candidates, political analysts and students of politics and international relations gathered to engage in an intellectual discourse about the voting system in Afghanistan. During this discussion, reasons for the low turnout, improvements to the current system and alternatives were considered. The discussion was primarily focussed on presidential elections, although some references were made to parliamentary elections for comparative purposes. This report concludes the outcome of the discussion.
Presidential candidates are required to make sure that the 100,000 cards required to register must include 36% from at least 18 provinces, divided equally to make 2% each. This presumably is to ensure the candidates have vote bases around the country. This condition, however, does not apply to the winning of the elections. This rule did not apply in the 2009 elections. During the discussion, it was argued whether a similar condition should apply to winning of the elections – most of the participants agreed with the current system and did not see this requirement necessary for winning the elections. Participants argued that what is more important is voter participation in the elections.
“The biggest problems that are faced by the system are security, people disillusioned with the candidates and also fraud. These problems need to be stamped out to increase voter participation. There is also a problem with information not reaching the rural areas.” Participant No 12
“In some provinces, security is the main issue when it comes to voting. Therefore, the provinces should be granted to vote through other means, i.e. through their phone by calling a centre and registering their vote for the first, second, and third choices.” Participant No 4
The majority (63%) of Afghanistan’s estimated 25 million population live in 11 out of its 34 provinces spread out across the country. The map in Figure 1 shows the spread; Kabul, Herat and Nangarhar, with 14%, 7%, and 6% of the population respectively, are the three most populated provinces. Balk, Ghazni, and Kandahar come second with a population of between 4% and 5% each. Kunar, Faryab, Takhar, Badakhshan, and Helmand boast between 3% and 4% each. The remaining 22 provinces have less than 3% each, with 15 provinces having a population of less than 2% each. Nimroz, Panjsher, and Nuristan have less than 1% of the total population each. The full data is given in Table 1 and the distribution is further illustrated in the chart in Figure 2.
Election data from the 2009 presidential elections show that out of the 4 million validated votes, 65% of them came from 11 provinces, as expected; with the exception of Kandahar, Kunar, and Helmand where the voter turnout was low due to insecurity in those provinces. Ghor and Daykundi joined the ranks of the top 11 provinces by securing 5% and 3% of the total votes respectively. There is no study on whether the outcome of the elections would have been different if the voter turnout in the mentioned three provinces would have been higher. Table 2 shows the complete data. Figure 3 shows the distribution on the map and Figure 4 shows the voters breakdown in 2009 election.
The Alternative Voting System
In the current system, if a clear majority was not won, the two candidates with the largest percentage of votes would go to a run-off. If there are more than 2 candidates running in the first round, those who disagree with a major candidate are more likely to vote for the opposition instead of voting for the candidate they want, if they believe their chosen candidate is not going to win—called the spoiler effect. Since the votes are not transferable and a coalition government cannot be formed in the current presidential system, a candidate requires a clear majority to win the elections. Weaker candidates suffer from this spoiler effect.
Some of the participants of the event suggested that the Alternative Voting System could be a better alternative to the current system in order to avoid costly and the often controversial runoff stage.
“The current system works for the time being but for the long run, the system can be changed to proportionate or the Alternative Voting system” Participant No 8
“The Alternative Vote might be an option but difficult to assess in Afghanistan. This could be a fairer system and the majority could have a voice.” Participant No 15
It was discussed that in the Alternative Voting system, voters could rank the candidates based on their first, second, third, etc. choices. The candidate with the lowest votes will get eliminated and his/her votes passed to the candidates that the voters indicated as their second choice. This process is repeated until one of the candidates gets past the 50% threshold. The candidate elimination in this process is called the instant runoff. In this system there is no requirement for a re-election, saving both time and costs without requiring considerable changes to the system. The ballot remains the same—but instead of ticking one candidate the voters now give a number to each on the list.
The Alternative Voting System also supports weaker candidates–their supporters can vote for them without worrying about the candidate they do not want to win, because they can still choose the other stronger candidate as their second choice. In the case that their weaker candidate gets eliminated his/her votes are automatically transferred to the second choice. Participants believed this would be the best alternative to the current system – it does not require drastic changes to the current system, and yet leads to more satisfied voters and reduced costs of the elections. It was, however, pointed out that significant initial investments would be needed to fund an efficient electronic infrastructure for vote counting, which tends to be relatively more complex in the Alternative Vote system.
Over citing insecurity for the low turnout ignores other factors; participants argued that a number of factors contribute to citizens not exercising their voting rights. In addition to lack of security, other major reasons include:
- Reduced awareness in rural population about the importance of voting,
- Lack of trust in the election process, and its lack of transparency—there are often conspiracies about elections playing a very small role in electing a president, that it may in fact be a decision made by foreign or other powers.
- Lack of faith in the candidates themselves and in their prospective plans for the country; grievances over lack of development in their locality; and the lack of political parties. Participants believed that if citizens were members of political parties they would be more interested in voting due to their engagement, and that political parties would work harder in campaigning throughout the country trying to engage citizens.
Some participants suggested that innovative and modern approaches should be incorporated into the existing system in order to enhance voter participation. Examples of such approaches suggested were exploring the avenues of remote voting, facilitating local and rural meetings to raise awareness, and an enhanced and constructive role to be played by the media.
The voting system in the current presidential elections is chosen for its simplicity. Complex systems cost more money to implement and understand. The system could be improved by adopting the Alternative Vote system, which would reduce the costs of run-off elections and make it easy for citizens to rank their support for all their candidates of interest in one ballot. Voter participation in the elections needs to be increased, which will require several steps; increased media involvement in raising awareness, demonstrating transparency throughout the process, policing and prevention of any foul play by candidates.