Quietly, a critical new electoral reform draft makes the rounds
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The debacle of the flawed Aug 20 presidential election laid bare the deficiencies of the country’s electoral system. Efforts are underway to avoid the same mistakes but will a new draft electoral law reform stop history from repeating itself?
It was denounced as the election that everyone lost.
The Aug. 20, 2009 Afghan presidential election was so flawed, that in his speech as he bowed out of a run-off against Afghan President Hamid Karzai, presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah stressed that the mistakes could not be repeated and that he wanted to be “an example for future elections”.
Those future elections in Afghanistan are only a few months away. In September, Afghans are expected to vote in parliamentary elections – the second since the 2001 fall of the Taliban.
If the Afghan people and the international community are not careful, history is in danger of repeating itself.
Yet, with the counter-insurgency topping the Afghanistan agenda these days and with the NATO-led Operation Moshtarak in Helmand dominating the headlines, a critical piece of proposed legislation is alarmingly escaping scrutiny.
Over the past few weeks, while the Afghan parliament was in recess, Karzai’s government has been drafting proposed changes to Afghanistan’s electoral law.
The draft of changes to the existing 2005 electoral decree - a translated copy of which was obtained by FRANCE 24 - was approved by Karzai’s cabinet earlier this month. It was then sent to the Ministry of Justice for review, according to an official from the Afghan presidential palace who declined to be named since he was not authorized to speak to the press and since the contents of the draft have not been publicly released.
If approved, Karzai could sign the text as a presidential decree, a scenario that has raised alarm bells in some circles.
But while Western diplomats in Kabul are closely monitoring the situation, few are ready to address their concerns publicly, on the record. Some diplomats, who wish to remain anonymous, expressed the view that the proposals were a draft text that they hope will be subject to review and discussion before it is put into practice.
“It’s too early to talk about it,” said one diplomat, who declined to be identified. “It’s just a draft version.”
It’s a disconcertingly familiar view. In the lead-up to the 2009 election, experts raised concerns over security and fraud, but little was done to address the problems that analysts had foreseen. [FRANCE 24: On eve of election, fraud concerns loom; Afghanistan Analysts Networks: How to Win an Afghan Election]
In the end, it was too early until it was too late.
‘What is our so-called Independent Election Commission?’
The electoral law reforms follow recommendations by a number of international election monitors and observers.
But instead of focusing on the issues of widespread concern, the draft text appears to zero in on areas that were deemed a success by the international community and the Afghan opposition - but not, importantly, by the Afghan government.
The crux of the Afghan election problem, for most observers, was the Independent Election Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan, whose members are appointed by Karzai and whose chief, Azizullah Ludin, is an embarrassingly outspoken Karzai loyalist.
When asked about the IEC during a recent visit to Paris, Abdullah was dismissive about the institution in its current form. “What is our so-called Independent Election Commission?” he asked rhetorically during a press conference at the Paris-based think-tank, IFRI (Institut français des relations internationales). “All the commissioners are appointed by Karzai.”
The new draft text however, makes no reference to the form and substance of the IEC. While Article 7 of the 2005 law concerns the IEC, the new version is noticeably missing any proposals to change or modify the commission.
The inconvenient internationals
On the other hand, the country’s Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) comes under extensive review and modification.
The new proposals include stripping away the positions of three UN-appointed international members on the five-member ECC and replacing them with Afghan-chosen appointees.
Instead of the three internationals, the EEC would now have one member selected by the Afghan Supreme Court, two by parliament, one by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and one by the president.
Led by Canadian Grant Kippen during and after the Aug. 20 poll, the ECC found “clear and convincing” evidence of electoral fraud, a calculation that lost Karzai his 50% majority needed to avoid a run-off. In the end though, Karzai was declared the winner after his closest rival, Abdullah, bowed out of their run-off.
According to Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), there is a deep divide between how the international community and the Afghan government views the post-election debacle.
"Whereas international experts and diplomats felt that it was the ECC that in the end provided legitimacy to a flawed process, the Afghan government believes that the ECC made the process unnecessarily complicated and messy, and that they are better off without such a strong international influence on the process," she says.
But it’s not only the international community that is alarmed by the new proposals. At a press conference in Paris on Friday, Abdullah called the ECC “the one source of hope during the presidential election”. While stressing that he was broadly in favour of electoral law reforms, Abdullah conceded that “it will be a tough battle to get it right”.
For its part, the international community could find it delicate to push for an international presence on the commission. At the critical London Afghanistan Conference in January, delegates stressed the importance of “Afghanisation” or handing over the reins of their country to Afghans. [FRANCE 24: World powers pledge to support 'full Afghan ownership' of security]
The question as Afghanistan prepares for its next poll, is just who the Afghans taking over the reins will be.