Afghanistan: The wrong voting system

By Barnett R. Rubin
Published March 16th 2005 in International Herald Tribune
NEW YORK In Iraq, after it was already too late to change, it eventually became clear that the particular electoral system chosen to form the country's new parliament threatened to precipitate a crisis. The system, recommended by UN electoral officials solely because it was the easiest to administer under a tight deadline, turned out to have the politically dangerous effect of underrepresenting Sunni Arabs, whose disaffection fuels today's insurgency.

In a comparable fashion, the electoral system recently chosen by the Afghan government, with little international scrutiny, for Afghanistan's coming parliamentary elections also risks potentially disastrous effects. Under the system, known as the "single nontransferable vote" within multimember provincial constituencies, candidates register solely as individuals, though they can list a party affiliation. Each voter casts one vote for one candidate. If a province elects five seats, the five candidates with the most votes gain the seats.

Afghan leaders like this system for several reasons: It is easy to understand, it marginalizes political parties and, deceptively, it appears to provide a direct link between the voters and their representatives.

It sounds fair, but the system favors well-organized minorities, despite voter intentions. One or two well-known candidates may garner the lion's share of votes. After that, among dozens or hundreds of individuals on the ballot, representatives can be elected with very few votes. Which lower-ranked candidates win is at best random, and at worst, the result of manipulation. Most voters may end up voting for losing candidates.

This system in fact virtually guarantees the formation of an unrepresentative parliament of local leaders with no incentive to cooperate with one another or the government. It places a premium on vote buying and intimidation, since swinging even a small number of votes can easily affect the outcome. Well-organized parties that can propose a limited number of candidates and discipline voters to spread their votes among them can win a disproportionate share of seats.

A voting simulation for Wardak Province, for instance, which Hamid Karzai won 2-to-1 over his closest opponent in the recent presidential election, shows that with minimal discipline of voters, Karzai's opponent could win five of six seats. Slight changes in voter behavior could shift the seats in any direction, leading to unpredictable outcomes.

Yet, Karzai, who shares popular antipathy toward political parties, refuses to organize the multethnic constituency that supports the reforms he proposes.

By now you can see the root of the problem. Outside a small group of specialists, few people appreciate how electoral systems - as much as or more than voter intentions - determine the outcome of elections. And even fewer people can bridge the gap between leaders concerned with the specific characteristics of a nation and general experts on electoral systems.

The Afghan Constitution requires that the lower house be elected "in proportion to population." Lacking population data adequate to delimit constituencies of equal size, the Afghan government has made each of the country's 34 provinces into a multimember constituency, electing a number of seats in proportion to its estimated population.

In such a situation electoral experts often recommend proportional representation with closed lists. In this system voters cast ballots for party lists, which gain seats in proportion to their vote, and allocate them to candidates ranked by the party. But Afghans associate parties with both the Communists who brought the Soviet invaders and the ethnic militias that pillaged the country after the Communists' downfall.

A different system, proportional representation with open lists within the same provincial constituencies, avoids the problems of closed lists, while preserving some benefits of the single nontransferable vote. It would represent Afghan voters better and meet the concerns of their leaders not to empower parties controlled by militia leaders.

Under this system, candidates can stand as independents or as part of a list of candidates. As in the present system, each voter votes for an individual candidate. The electoral commission totals the votes for each list and allocates seats to lists in proportion to the vote.

But the candidates who win seats are those with the most votes on the list, not those chosen by the party. This system assures that the electorate's views are represented proportionately, while enabling the voters to reject corrupt or abusive individuals. Unlike the single nontransferable vote, where each candidate competes against all the others, it creates incentives for cooperation among candidates and ethnic groups across a province. The results are more difficult to change through bribery and intimidation than under the present system.

Experts are unanimous in rejecting the present system, which today is used only in Jordan, Vanuatu and the Pitcairn Islands. Before locking a major international effort and tens of millions of dollars into a system that is likely to produce an unworkable parliament, the international community should engage with the Afghans to persuade them to adopt something better.

(Barnett R. Rubin is director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.)