Democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan
"Why is it that the people of Afghanistan can vote directly for the Afghanistan president, unlike Americans, who cannot vote directly for the American president? . . .  If the Electoral College is so important in America, then shouldn't Afghanistan have an Electoral College? Shouldn't Iraq have an Electoral College? The answer is that they don't because it's not relevant. "

-- Anthony Medina, The Seattle Times

“Securing democracy in Iraq is… a massive and difficult undertaking -- it is worth our effort, it is worth our sacrifice, because we know the stakes…The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.  … [W]e believe that freedom -- the freedom we prize -- is not for us alone, it is the right and the capacity of all mankind. ”
-- George W.  Bush’s address to the National Endowment for Democracy, November 11, 2003.

The stated rationale behind the USA’s recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan has been to spread ‘the freedom we prize’, and American traditions of democracy, to the Middle East and the rest of the world. Massive amounts of American resources, and even lives, have gone towards securing a peace in these countries which would allow elections to take place.   

In this context, it is interesting to note exactly what election systems are being implemented in the two countries. The democracy which America is exporting is different to that which it is using at home. In Afghanistan and Iraq, a decision has been taken – with US support – to implement proportional representation systems. In both instances, as in South Africa after the end of apartheid, proportional representation has widely been recognized as the best possible way of healing rifts between communities and bringing conflicting groups to co-operate with one another.   

Bush's speech to the National Endowment for Democracy suggested that Americans should be ready to intervene around the world to advance the cause of democracy. Implicit in this is a belief that tradition and habit should not limit a country's political infrastructure, and that fair democracy should be within the reach of everybody. Surely this principle applies just as much within the United States itself. At a time when the country is politically and culturally divided, proportional representation systems could help to bring disparate groups together, and give everyone a chance for fair representation.


Elections for Iraq's 275 seat assembly, held on January 30, 2005, used a national closed party list form of proportional representation.  A New York Times graphic explains how the system functioned.  Voters across the country chose from among rival lists of candidates, with the lists typically backed by political parties.  Candidates were elected at a countrywide level, rather than from districts, since it was hoped that this would encourage the growth of national political parties, and multi-ethnic coalitions.  By contrast, any system employing single-member districts, or even regional multi-member ones, tends to foster regional factions and tribalism.  Speaking about the electoral system, the U. N.  electoral assistance director, Carina Perelli, said that a significant benefit would be the advantage which it gives to smaller parties, ultimately resulting in a more inclusive elected body.  A country-wide election system would also have security advantages since it would guard against candidate intimidation.  Perelli suggested that "proportional representation at a national level—removing the politics from just the local level where people can be easily identified and taken down—is an extra layer of security for the candidates".  

To ensure a certain level of female assembly members, Iraqi election law mandates that every third candidate on each list must be a woman.   Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq has no separate presidential election.  The Iraqi president is not elected directly by the people.  Rather, the members of the assembly choose a president and two deputies on the basis of a single list by two-thirds vote.  This presidential council will then nominate a Council of Ministers.


Elections for the Afghan lower house, the Wolesi Jirga, are scheduled to take place April 2005 using multi-member at-large districts where representative are elected under a one-vote form of limited voting (also known as single non-transferable vote). The entire country will be divided into districts corresponding to existing provinces. The number of seats allocated to a province will be determined by its population, although each will be guaranteed a minimum of two seats. However many seats there are to be filled, each voter will have only one vote. This ensures that a group making up 51% of the population cannot swamp 100% of the seats, and that minority groups and parties will have a chance to win their fair share of representation.

The Afghan constitution sets aside a quota of seats in the Wolesi Jirga to be allocated to women, amounting in total to roughly one quarter of the entire assembly. Within each voting district, the highest female vote-getters will be awarded a predetermined number of seats, regardless of their position in the overall vote totals. In principle, the number of female designated seats is equivalent to 2 per province. However, in provinces with only two representatives, only one will be mandated female, the difference being made up in other more populous regions.

There are numerous logistical obstacles in the way of successful Afghan elections. The country's infrastructure as a whole is in very poor condition, making it difficult to get polling equipment to outlying areas. This is compounded by the fighting which still persists in certain regions. In addition, literacy levels in Afghanistan are low; as many as 80% of Afghan women are illiterate.

Early plans were for a list system of proportional representation to be used. Unfortunately, this was later abandoned, and instead the country adopted limited voting.  This goes some way towards giving all groups a hope of fair representation while at the same time being simple for voters to understand. However, because this is a system where the drawing of district boundaries still affects different candidates' chances of representation, the system creates problems as well as solving them. Afghan law stipulates that electoral boundaries must be determined 120 days before an election, and this process is likely to cause friction over the coming months. In a recent panel discussion convened in New York by the Asia society, experts on Central Asian affairs suggested that interested groups would place increasing pressure on election authorities to establish new provinces, new boundaries, and more parliamentary seats.   

Elections with local districts also have implications for candidate intimidation.  Robert Templer, the Asia Program Director of the International Crisis Group, thinks that parliamentary elections will bring difficulties which were not a factor in the recent presidential elections, since " real local authority will be at stake at this election in a way that it wasn't in the presidential election.  So local forces, local militias are going to be competing more thoroughly to influence the outcome of the parliamentary and council votes. "  
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