Complications Ahead for Afghanistan’s Election Reform

Complications Ahead for Afghanistan’s Election Reform

With the Afghan presidential election scheduled for April 2014, just three months after U.S. troops begin withdrawing from the Afghan combat mission, reforms to the previously highly flawed Afghan electoral system have never seemed more important. Fortunately, last month, the Afghan National Assembly and President Karzai approved several reforms to the Afghan electoral process, which, if respected, could help ensure a peaceful transition of power from Karzai to his successor in April 2014.

Despite these reforms, a number of issues threaten to derail the presidential transition, notably the question of what role the Taliban will play in post-2014 Afghanistan, and whether Taliban forces will attempt to derail the election through violent means. If Afghan politicians and their NATO allies fail to address the question of Taliban participation in post-transition Afghanistan and develop a plan to forestall both the corruption and violence which plagued 2009’s election, the recent reforms may not be powerful enough to ensure a successful Afghan presidential election.

The first new electoral law, signed by Karzai on 14 July, was generally hailed as a positive, reformist step because it seeks to ensure the independence of the electoral institutions and prevent interference from other government agencies. In earlier Afghan elections, the president’s high level of control over the electoral institutions, along with close relationships between the electoral commission members and other government agencies meant that the monitoring process had little independence.

The second law, which Karzai signed a few days later, on 20 July, outlines the voting process. While less revolutionary, and less contentious than the first law, the second is important because it provides a legal framework for the election. Without it, the planned election might have been delayed, damaging Afghanistan’s nascent democratic processes.

While the reforms are positive steps to ensure that the election is well-monitored and held on time, prior to April 2014 Afghanistan, and its allies will have to find solutions to a number of key issues if they also have hope for a safe election. Most importantly, solving the issue of the Taliban’s role could help ensure the security of the election. On polling day during the 2009 election, Afghanistan suffered its “highest number of attacks and other forms of intimidation for some fifteen years.” If it hopes to avoid a repeat next year, the issue of the Taliban’s role in politics after the NATO withdrawal is paramount.

Karzai’s government pushed back against U.S.-led attempts to engage the Taliban in peace talks earlier this summer, in large part due to the Taliban’s insistence on branding themselves as a sort of Afghan government-in-exile at their office in Qatar. However, in the aftermath of the stalled U.S.-Taliban talks, the Karzai government itself, somewhat surprisingly, reportedly reached out to conduct secret talks with the Taliban about restarting the peace process.

If the reports of outreach from the Karzai government to the Taliban are true, Afghan government-led peace talks with the Taliban could help ensure a peaceful election. Successful negotiations between the government and even some elements of the Taliban would help the Afghan government prove its legitimacy ahead of both the election and the NATO withdrawal. The U.S.-Taliban talks were a sticking point between the current Afghan regime and the U.S., because Karzai felt that they undermined his authority. Successful intra-Afghan talks would not only allow Karzai to maintain this perceived authority, but also might help ensure that the Taliban respected any agreements after U.S. forces began their drawdown.

At present, these possible outcomes still lie far in the future. The reported contact between Karzai’s government and the Taliban is officially still secret and certainly not well developed. Afghanistan has taken a number of positive steps to ensure that the 2014 election is peaceful. However, it still faces a number of difficulties if it hopes for a successful transfer of political power in April 2014.

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