Afghanistan's attempts to reform voting face failure

Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah hugging each other during a news conference in Kabul 15 January 2015 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The two most powerful men in Afghan politics cannot agree

The Afghan government is on a collision course with election officials over reform of the voting system.

Elections to the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, should take place in June.

The constitution states that there can be no reforms for a year before polls are held leaving just months to solve voting concerns.

Both President Ashraf Ghani and his coalition partner Abdullah Abdullah, whose official title is chief operating officer, came into office committed to reform the process before there are any more elections.

But the Independent Election Commission (IEC) is insisting on holding parliamentary elections this year.

Its chief, Ahmad Yusuf Nuristany, told the BBC that although he could hold polls as late as September, he could not delay them after that.

"This parliament has to go. Their time is over," he says.

Referring to proposals for reform, he says: "They cannot bring those reforms unless they trample on the law and ignore the law."

This raises a number of problems, not least who will pay for the elections.

International donors who funded both the elections last year, and an exhaustive audit to check for fraud, say they are unwilling to pay for any further elections without reform.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Afghanistan's voting system has faced repeated complaints of corruption
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Foreign donors will not pay for a fresh election without reform

Changes needed

The only reform that would make a substantial difference to the ability to commit fraud would be a new register of voters. Voters are not limited to voting at a particular location, and can currently use any card issued since 2001 in any polling station. This caused chaos during the presidential election when popular city polling stations ran out of ballot papers, depriving some of their right to vote.

There have been three major registrations since 2001, putting more than 20 million voting cards in circulation. But it is believed that there are around 12 million voters, so the number of cards is an obvious potential fraud. On some estimates it would take up to 10 years to introduce a full electronic identity system.

Nobody wants to delay elections that long, but Nader Nadery, the most prominent campaigner for reform, and head of the Afghanistan Research Evaluation Unit, said there are reforms that are possible without a full fresh registration of voters. He wants an election reform commission appointed as a matter of urgency.

"There must be an agreement of both leaders to move swiftly and quickly on a reform path, where that may not be satisfying and answering all the issues, but at least on a minimal level address the demand for reform and the need for reform," he says.

Mr Nadery said that there is a dilemma, because while an election should be held this year without reform under a strict reading of the constitution - it also states that there should elections should be "free, fair and credible". Something which is not possible without reform.

Differing views

But a clear difference is emerging between the two top politicians.

Abdullah Abdullah is insisting there should be no election without a full reform of the process, including the replacement of all the election commissioners.

On the other side, Ashraf Ghani's vice-president Mohammad Sawar Danish said that reform would not have to be so thorough.

Failure in this area is increasing nervousness in Afghanistan, already damaged by the long political stalemate since the election.

Only a third of cabinet ministers are yet in place, and the continuing uncertainty has had a catastrophic impact on the economy, paralysing trade.

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