Before Sunday’s Afghanistan election, I suggested that the SNTV electoral system would undermine the ability of voters to use these elections as an instrument of democratic control:
On Sunday, when the first reports of low turnuot hit the media, I made the following comment over at California Yankee:
I do not think this election could have been expected to have the kind of excitement–or turnout–that we saw either in the earlier presidential election, or in the Iraqi elections (outside of the areas where the boycott was effective).
There is no sense in which national power is at stake in these Afghan elections. The president was already elected and has a fixed term, and holds the far more important office under the Afghan constitution.
Because of the electoral system being used, there is no way that voters can select a party that promises to pursue a vision for the nation or even for an ethnic or religious group, as was the case with Iraq’s party-list proportional system.
Instead, voters are voting only for a single candidate among sometimes HUNDREDS running in their district, with no party affiliations listed (or sometimes known). The margin between the last few winners in a district and the first few losers will be tiny.
There really is no way voters can use a system like this to express any kind of mandate or will. All they can do is vote for some local notable. And other than the handful of “most notable” candidates in any province, most of those elected will have really tiny vote shares.
For these reasons, there just is bound to be much less perceived to be at stake than in the Afghan presidential election or the Iraqi assembly elections.
Now that turnout is reported to have been only around 50%, some reports are drawing the link, if not all that explicitly, between the electoral system and the turnout. For example, from Reuters:
Turnout was significantly lower than in last year’s presidential election won by U.S.-backed incumbent Hamid Karzai. Some analysts blamed the downturn on confusion caused by a vast field of 5,800 candidates, the presence of notorious warlords on the ballot and the slow pace of post-war reconstruction.
Afghanistan’s allies have hailed the vote, but analysts have said the new parliament is likely to be fragmented given that candidates ran as independents rather than on party tickets.
With its focus likely to be on local rather than national agendas, the assembly could prove more of a hindrance than a help to Karzai’s effort to strengthen central rule. [emphasis mine]
I would spin this a little differently, however. Because policy-making in Afghanistan’s presidential system is going to be a series of ongoing transactions between the president and this newly elected assembly, Karzai can strengthen central power at the same time as he deals with the fragmentation and local focus of this assembly. This is not the contradiction that it seems. The president and assembly are going to want different things: Karzai will want votes, and the assembly members will want payoffs for themselves or to impress the folks back home. This is not presidential democracy at its prettiest, but it is in a way an archetypical separation-of-powers system.
Being so fragmented, the assembly indeed does not have a pro-Karzai majority. Neither does it have an anti-Karzai majority. Karzai should have no trouble buying support by proving patronage.
Whether that is a model that undermines democracy or is just what is needed given the conditions Afghanistan faces would be an interesting debate. Whether this model is better than the Iraqi one would also be an interesting debate, as would be the question of whether this Afghan model would have been more or less appropariate for Iraq than the system chosen there. Interesting debates, indeed. Perhaps also the basis of some interesting essay questions for certain students later this quarter!