Karzai Might Be Right

January 20, 2011 Topic: Civil SocietyCounterinsurgencyDemocracy Region: Afghanistan

Karzai Might Be Right

President Hamid Karzai's move to postpone seating Afghanistan's parliament is legit.

On January 19, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, following the advice of a special court he had created for the purpose of overseeing Afghanistan's parliamentary-election process, decided to postpone the seating of the new parliament which had been scheduled for this weekend. The decision leaves the country still with no parliament, sidelines the two commissions that had been specially created to oversee the election, and raises new worries that Karzai is abusing his powers as president.

For all that, it may have been the right move—that is, IF Karzai and other actors now take seriously the job before them. They must find a compromise that simultaneously empowers and legitimates the efforts of the millions of voters who went to the polls back in September, minimizes infringement upon the work of the two bodies that were supposed to oversee the election process—the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC)—and also redresses the shortcomings of what happened in September.

The voting last fall had its problems. Nearly a quarter of all ballots were ultimately invalidated due to attempted cheating by candidates and campaigns, or because security concerns made it impossible to properly monitor and validate what happened at certain polling sites.

Not all was bad. As Tom Garrett of the International Republican Institute argued at Brookings in October, Afghanistan's political development trajectory is not unusual for a young democracy. It has also been impressive how Afghans have held Afghans accountable for what happened in the voting. There were international election monitors in September (I was one, though the views here are my own and not those of any organization doing the monitoring). But the tough scrutiny and real decisions were made by Afghans. Another hopeful aspect of the voting is that no pan-Karzai bloc has emerged with the intent of railroading through parliament his decisions and diktats. In fact, the last parliament was increasingly assertive after the 2009 presidential election, on matters such as the confirmation of cabinet officials, and all signs suggest that the new parliament will also function independently in the future.

But first, the parliament needs to be convened. And there are serious problems in doing so. The outcome of the voting has created serious problems. To see why, it is important to view the vote not as a nationwide election, but as thirty-four separate provincial elections (plus one more for nomadic peoples). Each province was allocated a certain number of seats, say X, based on estimated population, and each one then tallied its votes with the expectation that the top X vote getters would be seated in the new parliament.

Add in bad security, a problem afflicting the Pashtun parts of the country in particular (since the Taliban and related groups are Pashtun-based insurgencies with extremely few members from other ethnic groups). Bad security suppressed turnout and tended also to lead to more voting irregularities and thus to more disenfranchised voters. In a province without many Pashtuns, this would not matter. And even in a province dominated overwhelmingly by Pashtuns, while the problem could change individual results, it would not have sectarian implications—Pashtun candidates would still be expected to win virtually all the seats in a province like Helmand or Kandahar. Individual candidates would win with far fewer votes than they would have otherwise gained, but since bad security would affect everyone and suppress turnout in general, there would not necessarily be implications for sectarian politics.

However, there are exceptions to this rule—most notably in a province with mixed populations. Take Ghazni, an important province in eastern Afghanistan, populated primarily by Pashtuns and Hazaras (who are mostly Shia, and often Oriental in facial features). Because many polling centers in Pashtun areas were shut down or otherwise unusable to poor security, Hazaras dominated the vote, and Pashtuns were disenfranchised. This same effect may have occurred in a couple other provinces (but not too many).

This problem was apparently a major motivation for the recent decisions of the special election court and President Karzai as well. It is a problem that no technical body charged with election procedures, like the IEC or ECC, can easily fix, but that a young democracy needs to take seriously. In other words, Karzai's position on the issue may be legitimate—if he now treats it as a problem to solve with a discrete fix, rather than using it as an excuse to throw out the elections altogether and continue to run the country without parliamentary oversight as he has done for the last four months.

At least two possible solutions come quickly to mind. One would be to seat all 249 of the members who just won seats according to official tallies (including about 100 Pashtuns, less than their share of the population and less than their 115 seats previously held), but add in some seats on an ad hoc basis for those Pashtun parts of the country like Ghazni that lost representation in the recent voting. A respected group would need to be charged with this task, and no more than ten to fifteen additonal seats should be created as a result, but the fix might otherwise work. A second approach would be to convene a shura in Ghazni to create a balanced provincial delegation—effectively discarding the results of the election for that province only (and, again, perhaps one or two others if truly needed).

It is up to Afghans to decide on the solution, of course. But we should not leap to judgment or condemnation as they try to do so. The problem they are addressing is legitimately difficult, and cannot be ignored. If seating the candidates certified by the IEC and ECC satisfied the lawyers and election observers but fueled the insurgency, it would be no accomplishment at all.