Afghanistan Election Conundrum (10): Failure to hold the first ever district council elections?
Author: Ali Yawar Adili
The Independent Election Commission (IEC) has proposed a delay in the district council elections, citing a lack of candidates. According to a report from the body, only a tenth of the country’s districts have enough male and female candidates to compete. The IEC listed several reasons as to why so few people wanted to stand: insecurity, lack of a legal framework, a requirement on educational qualifications that was too stringent, lack of clarity on salaries and benefits for councillors and, in rural areas, an unfavourable ‘cultural context’. In this, the latest dispatch in his series on the preparations for Afghanistan’s elections, AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili assesses these reasons and points also to a hostility towards district council elections from within the state from the outset.
This is part ten of a series of dispatches looking at the preparations for the parliamentary elections. Part one dealt with political challenges; part two with an initial set of technical problems, including the date, budget and use of biometric technology; part three with electoral constituencies; part four with controversies surrounding the appointment of a new IEC member after its former chief was sacked by President Ghani; part five with a demand by political parties to change the electoral system; part six with the date of the polls and with voter registration; part seven with a deficient polling centre assessment; part eight with controversies over voter registration, and; part nine with controversies over holding elections in Ghazni province.
Setting up district councils should be an important endeavour. They have, potentially, a significant political role to play. In establishing them two important institutions would be completed: according to the constitution, one third (34) of the 102 members of the Meshrano Jirga should be elected by district councils and district councillors should make up more than half of the members of any Constitutional Loya Jirga (the only body which can change the Afghan constitution). District councils could also provide accountability at the local level by checking local administration and district governors (see also this USIP article here). They could contribute to efforts to secure peace with the Taleban and other insurgent groups by providing a platform for local communities to feel included, represented and engaged in local government.
However, despite being mandated by the 2004 constitution, elections for district councils have never been held. This time again, efforts to hold them are failing. On 29 July 2018, the IEC proposed that they should be postponed (they are due to be held on 20 October, together with the parliamentary elections). The IEC argued that only 40 out of Afghanistan’s 387 districts had an adequate number of candidates to compete. (See media reporting here, which quotes the IEC letter On 31 July, the head of the IEC’s field operations department, Zmarai Qalamyar, said that out of three elements necessary to an election – “voters, candidates, and competition” – one was missing; in other words, the number of candidates standing was inadequate. He also said that re-opening a fresh candidate nomination was not feasible at this stage as it would delay the Wolesi Jirga elections.
This is the second proposal by the IEC regarding a postponement of a 2018 election. It had earlier recommended delaying all elections in Ghazni province, arguing that due to the “serious security situation and other problems” in the province, fair and inclusive representation from the entire province could not be ensured (media report here).
Both proposals were made to a committee that has been set up, as stipulated in article 104 of the electoral law which says that if “security situations, natural disasters, and other similar conditions make impossible the principle of general and fair representation,” elections should be postponed for a period of four months, based on a proposal by the IEC and with the approval of the committee. (1) The committee, according to the article, comprises the head and members of the National Security Council, the speakers of two houses of the parliament, the chief justice and the chairperson of the Independent Commission for Overseeing the Implementation of the Constitutions. Qalamyar said the committee has not decided on the IEC proposal yet.
The Central Statistics Office (CSO) and Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) provided a list of 387 districts to the IEC for planning the district council elections. The statistics that AAN received on 26 July 2018 show the following problems:
- No male or female candidates in 42 districts
- No female candidate in 120 districts
- The number of candidates in 166 out of the 206 districts that have female candidates is equal or less than the number of the seats allocated to women in those districts
- The number of male candidates in 39 out of the 326 districts that have male candidates is equal or less than the number of the seats allocated to those districts (excluding the women’s quota of 25 per cent seats)
- Only 40 districts have an adequate number of male and female candidates
On 30 July, Kabul daily Etilaat Roz also reported similar statistics that it claimed had been prepared by the legal department of the IEC. AAN’s conversations with election specialists privy to the IEC’s internal discussions (as well as Etilaat Roz report quoted above) show that IEC officials have concluded that the reasons for the low number of candidates include: the stringent education requirements, insecurity, the need to resign from civil service and government positions before standing, a lack of clarity on the councillors’ authorities and responsibilities – a problem that also had applied to the provincial councils (AAN analysis here) –, and a lack of clarity on salaries and benefits that councillors will enjoy. However, as I argue below, more overarching factors were at play; the reasons why so few Afghans wanted to stand should be seen as secondary factors in causing a delay – or, in the end, abandonment of the district council elections. There has been hostility by sections of the National Unity Government to holding them at all. That has allowed a basic lack of clarity to linger over various issues which needed to be certain before elections could take place. Among these were the number of districts in the country, that has only recently been clarified between the Central Statistics Office and the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (each had previously used different figures) and their boundaries (this issue will be looked at in a separate dispatch).
Earlier pushback against district council elections
The drive towards holding district elections for the first time came from the 2014 National Unity Government agreement. The Abdullah camp wanted to change the constitution and this was agreed to by the Ghani camp. Changing the constitution needs a Constitutional Loya Jirga whose members must include the elected heads of district councils. However, since 2014, some elements of the government have displayed a reluctance to hold these elections. Last year, on 21 August 2017, Vice-President Sarwar Danesh, who was speaking at an event organised jointly by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) and United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on reviewing the constitution, openly said that there was no need for district council elections (or village council or municipal council elections). He argued that four elected institutions (the presidency, Wolesi Jirga, mayoral and provincial councils) were enough. He also said that Afghanistan did not have the money to hold all these elections, nor did it have the expertise to manage the various elected bodies and nor was there any need for them in terms of democracy and popular will.
Vice-President Danesh’s argument for removing district council elections from the constitution ran counter to what the Special Electoral Reform Commission (SERC) – the commission that was tasked in 2015 by the government to come up with proposals for electoral reform – had, earlier in late 2015, recommended when it discussed the issue of multiple elections in Afghanistan (see AAN analysis here). The SERC’s recommendations were that the constitution be amended in a way to provide for the indirect election of provincial council members from among the district and municipal councils. It also said that the Constitutional Loya Jirga should reconsider having village council elections. (2) The SERC’s recommendation was based on two things: the desire to reduce the number of elections to make them affordable, and to localise representation. The argument was that district councils would be closer to the local population than the provincial councils and they could just as well be elected indirectly. This system would work in a similar way to the Afghan Senate where one third of the members are elected by provincial councils and one third should be elected by district councils.
Vice-President Danesh’s remarks were noticed with concern by some parties. For instance, on 16 September 2017, Abdul Sabur Khedmat, an MP from Farah province, said: “The second vice president says that we cannot hold the district council elections, but the commission says that we will hold parliamentary _and_district council elections.” (emphasis added) (see here.)
AAN’s research at the time also showed that officials at the IDLG were arguing against holding district council elections in 2018. These officials pointed to a number of reasons why a delay was desirable: the cost of the elections and the salaries to the elected councillors, and the lack of institutional structures within the IDLG to administer and oversee almost 400 district councils (more on the number of districts below). AAN’s research also showed that the IDLG had suggested to President Ashraf Ghani that district council elections be held together with the next presidential and provincial council elections in 2019. Officials from both the IDLG and the Palace, the author found out, only wanted to hold district council elections at all so as to complete the constitutional requirements to hold a Constitutional Loya Jirga which could then remove district councils altogether. One IDLG official in conversation with AAN argued that district councils could provide a huge network of clients for national powerbrokers and could therefore play a destabilising role in politics.
Remarks aimed at disincentivising potential candidates also came from the IDLG halfway through the period for candidate nomination when, on 4 June, the head of its department for coordination of local councils, Sayyed Ahmad Khamush, told Etilaat Roz that the IDLG did not have the financial ability to pay salaries and benefits to the district council members in the same way it paid MPs and provincial council members. He said that the IDLG intended to build on the experience of developing community development councils (CDCs), which worked _voluntarily _with the National Solidarity Programme in the past and now with the Citizen’s Charter programme. A week later, on 11 June, he told Tolonews (see here) that there were around 2,800 district council members and the government would need to hire over 800 civil servants to carry out their administrative work. Khamush estimated that around 500 million Afs (around 6.9 million USD) would be needed per annum to pay the district councillors’ salaries and benefits and this, he said, was beyond the government’s financial capability.
These remarks came during the candidate nomination period (for both district councils and Wolesi Jirga elections, this started on 26 May and ended on 12 June.) The IEC extended the period for nominations for district councils for two more days, until 14 June, after it realised that not enough people, especially women, had chosen to stand. AAN’s conversations with different national and international election experts suggest these remarks did dampen potential candidates’ interest and that the possibility that they were deliberately made cannot be ruled out. This suspicion was also flagged by Mohiuddin Mahdi, an MP from Baghlan affiliated with Jamiat-e Islami, who wrote on 27 July in a Facebook post that “the most important reason for women and men’s disinterest in nomination was the government’s untimely – but meaningful – announcement of the district councillors not having material benefits.” AAN has also heard anecdotes indicating that, in certain provinces, candidates had resigned from their government jobs to run in district council elections, but rushed to withdraw their resignations after hearing the remarks from the IDLG.
It seems that, although the IEC did incorporate district council elections into election planning from the very beginning when it announced the election date, there has been no sign of political will or genuine support from the government for holding them, although the president officially stuck to the line that both elections should be held as planned (see for example on his website here).
Some attempts to re-incentivise potential candidates by discussing their salaries and benefits came far too late, after the nomination period was already over. For instance, on 18 June, some MPs signed a proposal and submitted it to administrative board of the Wolesi Jirga to revise the law on the salaries of government officials to include salaries for district council members. Baghlan MP Mehdi, who was part of this effort (a copy of the proposal posted on his Facebook page, told the media that:
District councils are a fundamental foundation stone of democracy as well as a primary component of a Constitutional Loya Jirga. Therefore, I suggested that specific benefits be envisioned for their members. Inter alia, if they are [a government] employee or a teacher, they should be given additional benefits in addition to them maintaining their job and salary, while those who are newcomers and do not have a working background, should be provided with fixed salaries and benefits.
Similarly, it was only on 25 July that, that the issue was clarified at the highest level of government: the High Council of Rule of Law chaired by President Ghani discussed the district council law and salaries and decided that the law be finalised soon and “salaries be set for members of district councils.”
It might also be the case that this late effort on the part of the government was intended to avoid responsibility for the unravelling of the district council elections.
What is the constitutional status of district councils?
A more fundamental antipathy to having elected district councils could be because they are a prerequisite for changing the constitution. They are needed to complete two important institutions: a Constitutional Loya Jirga and the upper house of the parliament. Not having elected district councils could always, therefore, be used as an excuse to reject any demand for convening such a Loya Jirga. The constitution is very clear about this. Article 140 of the 2004 constitution (3) establishes district councils elected by local residents “for 3 years through free, general, secret, as well as direct elections.” A separate law to regulate the authorities and responsibilities of the councils has to be approved by parliament and the president. The IDLG has been reportedly holding consultative meetings in different regions of the country on what roles should be codified for district councils. (media report here) However, as yet – less than three months before the planned elections – nothing has been authorised.
It is article 110 (4) of the constitution that discusses district councillors’ part in any Loya Jirga which, according to the article, “is the highest manifestation of the will of the people of Afghanistan.” A Loya Jirga consists, the article says, of: 1) members of the National Assembly; 2) heads of the provincial councils; and 3) heads of the district councils. The Loya Jirga has crucial functions, as prescribed in article 111 of the constitution: to decide on issues related to the independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity and supreme national interests; amend provisions of this constitution and; impeach the president in accordance with the provisions of article 69 of the constitution. None of these three functions can be performed without a Loya Jirga and it cannot be constitutionally convened without having district council elections.
This was the reason why the National Unity Government in its September 2014 political agreement (see here) committed itself to holding district council elections “as early as possible on the basis of a law in order to create a quorum for the Loya Jirga in accordance with Section 2 of Article 110 of the Constitution.” The aim of convening a Loya Jirga was to amend the constitution and consider “the proposal to create the post of executive prime minister.” On 27 July, MP Mahdi, after it was revealed that the IEC was considering proposing a delay in district council elections, called this “the antidemocratic decision” of the government taking “pre-emptive action” against convening a Loya Jirga “to amend and reform the constitution.” He claimed the Loya Jirga was “a demand that recently parties and civil society organisations have strongly insisted on and emphasised.”
Moreover, according to article 84 of the constitution, one third of Meshrano Jirga members should also come from the district councils: “From amongst district councils of each province, one individual [is] elected by the respective councils for a three-year term for Meshrano Jirga.” (5) However, both the previous and current governments have filled this set of Meshrano Jirga seats with provincial councillors. The indirectly-elected two-thirds of senators should outnumber the one-third appointed by the president and could, therefore, provide a stronger check on him (or her), particularly given that the senators elected through the district councils are, in principle, supposed to strongly represent the interests of the rural population.
Given the 387 districts in Afghanistan now agreed upon, the district councils would actually comprise a majority of Constitutional Loya Jirga members. Against the 387 heads of district councils would be 386 others – 250 MPs, 102 Senators and the 34 heads of the provincial councils. Since the district councils would also elect 34 members of Meshrano Jirga, the total number of Constitutional Loya Jirga members coming directly or indirectly from the district councils would be 421, as opposed to 352 others. The district councils’ share of a Loya Jirga membership could further increase as more districts than 387 might be created in the future (more on the number of districts below and in an upcoming dispatch).
Legal requirements and constraints
The low number of candidates for district councils was also caused by too strict criteria for nomination. The 2016 electoral law stipulates what some election experts consider as too high requirements for potential candidates for district (as well as provincial and village) councils which are discussed in this section. This could indicate how random and flawed the – still largely incomplete – electoral reform was.
For instance, while there is no education criterion for Wolesi Jirga candidates who are supposed to enact legislation in a broad range of fields and approve fundamental lines of the country’s foreign policy as well as other international treaties (which should require education), the electoral law sets out completed 12thgrade education (apart from being at least 25 years old) for prospective candidates of the three above-mentioned councils. (6) AAN’s conversation with election specialists and potential candidates as well as the IEC report showed that the legal requirements for the district council candidates have actually harmed candidate nomination. Article 40 of the electoral law sets the following requirements for people to stand in district – and provincial – councils:
A further dampening of enthusiasm may have been article 44 of the electoral law (7) which bans seven categories of people from running, including civil servants. They have to resign before standing for any elected position. Given the lack of clarity on salaries and benefits (and of the chance of being elected), this stipulation may have put off teachers and other civil servants from standing as district councillors.
Districts outside the government control
According to the IEC’s report, insecurity was one of the main reasons for not enough people standing for the district council elections. The government has never cited insecurity as an argument against district council elections. However, as three security assessments showed, it is a real problem. Even if the IEC were to rescind its proposal to delay the district council elections, holding an inclusive ballot looks near impossible.
The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been conducting an assessment of Afghanistan’sdistricts since it began receiving ‘control-of-district’ data from the United States military and Resolute Support in November 2015. According to its latest quarterly report published on 30 July 2018, out of the country’s 407 districts, which SIGAR uses as the unit of assessment, as of 15 May 2018, 74 districts were under Afghan government control and 155 others under government influence, a total of 229 districts (56.3%). It said 11 districts were under insurgent control and 45 others under insurgent influence, a total of 56 districts (13.8%). The remaining 122 districts (30%) were contested, meaning they were controlled neither by the government nor the insurgency. In sum, SIGAR found the Taleban to be controlling, influencing or contesting 178 districts (43.7%).
The Long War Journal, which has been tracking the status of Afghanistan’s districts since the summer of 2015, six months before SIGAR, published its own assessment of the districts on 1 May 2018. According to the Journal and its three assessment levels (government-controlled, insurgent controlled, and contested), the Afghan government controls 159 districts (39%), the Taliban 39 districts (9.5%) (8), leaving 200 districts (49%) contested. It said it was not able to determine the status of 9 districts (2%). According to its data, the Taleban controls or is contesting 239 of Afghanistan’s 407 (59%) districts. (see here).
In early May this year, Defense Minister Tareq Shah Bahrami and Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak provided their own security assessment of the districts to the Wolesi Jirga. They considered 216 districts out of 387 districts (55.8%) to be insecure.
There is no sign that the balance between government and insurgency control or influence has significantly changed since these assessments.This is underscored by SIGAR’s new quarterly report published on 30 July which reported that while “the Afghan government halted the insurgency’s momentum in gaining control of Afghanistan’s districts” this quarter, “it failed to improve its own areas of control.” (see here.)
Whatever the exact numbers are, it is clear that much of Afghanistan will be too insecure to hold elections safely, given the conflict and the Taleban’s stated hostility to elections. The IEC was not able even to access 32 districts in 14 provinces due to insecurity when it conducted its nation-wide assessment of polling centres last year (this is according to a list received by AAN from the IEC in early January 2018 – see AAN’s previous reporting here). (9) Then, a day after voter registration was launched, on 15 April 2018, the Taleban called on the “Muslim and Mujahed people to boycott the cosmetic and fake process under the name of election,” making the statement (see AAN’s previous reporting on this here).
Since then, both the Taleban and the Daesh branch in Afghanistan, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), have claimed attacks on election staff and sites. As we reported at the time of voter registration, insecurity was a major factor causing initial low turn-out. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released a report about election-related incidents and civilian casualties on 10 May. It had, by then, verified 23 election-related security incidents since voter registration began on 14 April 2018. Not all attacks were claimed by or attributed to the Taleban. They had resulted, said UNAMA, in 271 civilian casualties (86 deaths and 185 injured) and the abduction of 26 civilians (read the report here). Since then, more election facilities and personnel have been targeted, see this media report of the Taleban storming a voter registration centre in Chakhansur district of Nimroz, killing seven police officers, and seizing election material after the raid, for example.
Conclusion: no future for district council elections?
The IEC did include district council elections in election planning. It then conducted an unsuccessful candidate nomination operation, with only 10 per cent of the country’s 387 districts producing enough nominations for a sensible and competitive election to be held. This insufficiency of candidates in 90 per cent of the districts has rendered elections politically meaningless, for lack of competition, in a majority of the country’s districts. If the IEC reopened a new candidate nomination process and then prepares the preliminary and final lists, it would cause a delay in the Wolesi Jirga elections, if both elections were not split. Moreover, security has not improved and it is not clear at all whether people will take an interest in nomination in the future. As a result, the IEC has proposed a delay in the district council elections.
The option now is to hold the district council elections together with the presidential and provincial elections, planned for 20 April 2019, as it can be surely assumed that a third election within six months is completely unimaginable. This would give the IDLG some more time to set the legal framework for the district councils. However, holding district council elections with the presidential and provincial council elections as well as the Wolesi Jirga election in Ghazni would severely complicate the presidential election, as would any overspill such as the long-winded disputes which have characterised most previous elections.
The likely unravelling of the 20 October district council elections appears to have stemmed from the government’s lack of clear and firm determination to hold them, exacerbated by contradictory and unhelpful remarks by certain officials. Those who have stood – according to the IEC report, a total of 6221 people (5801 men and 420 women) in districts in 33 provinces (excluding Ghazni; the number of those districts is not mentioned in the report), with 70 candidates (61 men and 9 women) excluded from the preliminary list – number 6,151. They were expecting to stand in and hoped to win their district council election. Some may be locally influential – and not very happy about matters.
The failure to hold district council elections will also delay the holding of any possible Constitutional Loya Jirga and therefore any amendments to the constitution. These may be wanted – whether because of efforts to find peace with the Taleban or because something solid has emerged out of the (interminable) debates about changing Afghanistan’s political system. Adopting any other mechanism apart from a Loya Jirga to amend the constitution would be tantamount to overturning the current constitutional order and starting a new arrangement from scratch. This also would add a significant amount of political instability to an already instable situation.
Edited by Kate Clark and Thomas Ruttig