Parliamentary and provincial elections are taking place in Afghanistan on October 20,2018--three years after the term of the lower house of Parliament (Wolesi Jirga) ended in 2015. Fresh elections were delayed because of security concerns and Afghanistan’s parliament voted to extend its own term beyond the constitutionally mandated period. The action was supported by President Ashraf Ghani who wanted to avoid a legal vacuum in the absence of fresh elections.The Wolesi Jirga has 249 seats and the Meshrano Jirga or Upper House has 102 members. No person can be a member of both houses at the same time.

Members of the Lower House are elected through free, general and secret voting for a period of five years. They have to be 25 years of age, citizens of Afghanistan for the last ten years, and not convicted of crimes against humanity or crimes that warrant deprivation of civil rights by a court.

The Meshrano Jirga is the upper house or Senate which has 102 elected and nominated members. 34 members are elected from Provincial Councils for a period of four years; 34 from District Councils for a period of three years and 34 members nominated by the President. Of the presidential nominees 17 members (50%) must be women, for a period of 5 years.

After the 2010 elections the four major parties in the 249 member Wolesi Jirga were the Jamiat-e Islami with 17 seats; the People's Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan with 11 seats; the Junbish e Milli with 10 seats and the Jamhoori or Republican Party with 9 seats.

In Afghanistan all 34 provinces are single constituencies except Ghazni, which was recently divided into 3 constituencies as protestors kept the provincial Independent Election Commission office in Ghazni City closed for two months. The 11 Wolesi Jirga seats allotted for Ghazni have been divided into three constituencies.

As per the current electoral law the candidates for the Lower House or Wolesi Jirga have 20 days to conduct their electoral campaigns; district council candidates campaign for 15 days. The campaigns for both types of elections must end 48 hours prior to the start of the election. District council members have a three term with the number of district council members assigned proportionally to the population of each district. In every district council, 25% of the seats are required to be given to female candidates.

Reforming the electoral law has been a major subject of debate and differences in the past years. Elections have been held on the basis of the Single Non Transferable Vote. When the current President, Ashraf Ghani, and Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah, formed the National Unity Government (NUG) in September 2014, they agreed on the need for “fundamental changes” to the electoral laws and institutions so that the allegations of fraud that plagued the 2010 elections should not be repeated.

They agreed to implement the reforms before the next election. Influential leaders have been seeking an increase in the role of political parties in the conduct of the elections. They particularly wanted parties to be allowed to field party-based candidates list and votes cast for these lists made transferable in each constituency .

A Special Electoral Reform Commission was set up and it prepared alternatives with the members of the Reform Commission unanimous in their belief that the SNTV system needed to be changed but unable to decide on what to replace it with. The Commission’s proposals comprised suggestions to have a parallel system under which one third of the seats of the Wolesi Jirga would be allocated to the political parties on the basis of Proportional Representation, with a country-wide constituency, and the rest would be distributed to independent candidates through SNTV in provincial-level constituencies.

Two members of the SERC wanted the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, a plurality system applied in single-member districts. According to their proposal, the quota seats reserved for women (65) and Kuchis (10) and the tiny Sikh and Hindu community (1) would be subtracted from the total 249 Wolesi Jirga seats and the rest (174) would be elected in single-member districts.

SERC with UN inputs also suggested the Multi-Dimensional Representation (MDR) system under which there could be four categories of candidates:

1) independent individuals;

2) list of ad hoc alliance of individuals;

3) list of party candidates and;

4) list of a coalition of parties.

The list would be open and voters would still vote for individuals, but the determination of the winners would be done in two steps – first counting how many seats the best-performing lists had earned and then awarding seats to the individuals on these lists with the most votes.

An inability to choose between the alternatives presented and clashes of personality among the SERC members and the government finally led the government to drop all the suggestions.

The present Electoral Law was pushed through by a presidential legislative decree without being approved by the Parliament. The government did not seek Parliament’s approval for the decree saying that each of the years after the original five year term of the parliament , which ended in 2015, was considered the ‘last working year’ of the Parliament and according to the Constitution, parliament cannot amend the electoral law in its last working year.

The 2016 Electoral Law does not merely define what polling centres and polling stations are, but also stipulates that polling centres should be established in a balanced manner taking into consideration the number and geographical location of voters, so that the proportion of centres to voters and the proximity of centres to voters is the same across the country. In the absence of any new system the October 20, 2018 elections would be held under the Single Non Transferable Vote system.

The Election Authorities face a number of challenges to ensure that the elections are credible. Registration of voters; assessment of existing polling centres; security of polling centres and recruitment of staff, and the security of voters are issues that have been at the forefront of the concerns of the election authorities.

The voter registration in the country's provincial centers was to end on May 13, but the process was extended until June 12, 2018. As part of electoral reforms after the fraud-marred presidential election in 2014, voters have been required to register again and receive new voting identification cards. An ambitious planned biometric registration system was abandoned last year.

President Ghani had introduced a new electronic ID system to prevent voter fraud in future elections but since it termed citizens as “Afghans” largely taken to mean Pushtoons the Tadjiks and other ethnic groups objected that the plan was abandoned. The Election Commission is therefore preparing the voter registry using the old paper identification. The process entails risks of fraud since as nearly 20 million election cards had been distributed since 2001 while Afghanistan only has an estimated 12 million voters.

According to the Independent Election Commission as of May 8, 2018 more than 1.4 million of some 12 million eligible voters registered for the polls. The number of women registering themselves remains limited because of long distances to the polling stations, lack of identity cards and the continuing insecurity.

The Taliban have been issuing threats that the homes of villagers would be targeted if they participate in the polls. vote. An attack on a voting registration center in Kabul, claimed by Islamic State killed over 60 people and voter registration centers have been attacked in Khost, Nangarhar, Badghis, Ghor, and Baghlan provinces.

The IEC had undertaken an assessment of the polling stations and reported that out of a total of 7,300 polling stations, 1,707 centers are under threat in 32 districts with the majority of such polling stations located in Helmand, Uruzgan, Kunduz, Badakhshan, Faryab, and Ghazni with some in other provinces. The IEC’s assessment had been challenged with critics saying that assessments were not been conducted in 33 districts because of insecurity and in some areas in which the IEC claimed to have conducted an assessment this had not actually happened.

Mohammad Yousuf Rashed, the head of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, an independent organization, had said that of 7,300 polling stations due to be set up for the elections, 948 were in areas "out of government control." The Election and Transparency Watch Organization of Afghanistan (ETWA) had said some 700 polling stations, facing serious security threats, would remain closed across the country during the upcoming elections.

Although there are a large number of political groupings in Afghanistan the Ministry of Justice is reported to have registered 82 political parties in Afghanistan since the current law governing the formation and registration of political parties was adopted in 2009. The law requires that a party to be registered as a political party must have 10000 members.

The Independent Election Commission released the list of candidates showing that 93 percent of the 2,495 candidates for the upcoming Wolesi Jirga elections are independent. The initial list shows Kabul, Herat, Nangarhar and Kandahar leading other provinces in fielding candidates for each lower house seat and the least number of candidates coming from Nimroz, Panjsher, Nuristan and Zabul provinces.

According to the IEC’s initial list 170 candidates belong to registered political parties. They include the Jumbish-i-Milli Islami party, led by Vice President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dosum, with 40 candidates, the Hezb-i-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar with 39 candidates and the Hezb-i-Wahdat Islami Mardum Afghanistan with 19. 17 candidates are from the Hezb-i- Wahdat Islami party, 11 from Milli Wahdat Wolesi movement, eight from Jamiat-i-Islami and four from Dawat-i-Islami party.

The Mahaz-i-Milli Islami, Insijam-i-Milli Afghanistan and Hizb-i-Mutahid Milli have fielded three candidates each while there are two each from Milli Taraqi party, Hirasat-i-Islami, Afghan Milat, Itedal Milli, Refa-i-Milli, Milli Iqtidar, Milat and Milli Paiwand .

Which party or parties will end up dominating the Wolesi Jirga is a secondary question. The real issue is whether the Afghan authorities would be able to hold credible, relatively fair elections while protecting the electoral staff and voters. The Independent Election Commission plans to train 33000 employees for the electoral process but is far from reaching this target. There have also been problems recruiting female staff for polling stations.

Officials and former officials of the IEC have complained that President Ghani’s over-involvement and micro-management have created multiple power centres within the IEC and ego clashes and infighting are creating obstacles in ensuring steady progress towards planning and holding the elections. According to one report several senior positions in the IEC headquarters in Kabul remain vacant while nepotism by some of the commissioners in recruiting drivers etc. has also been reported.

As of mid -July 2018 Election Watch Afghanistan (EWA) has said the IEC has failed to make good progress, and that the commission has not yet recruited all its staff, while Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA) has blamed political interference in the work of the IEC for creating obstacles. Resources for the elections are being augmented with the European Union pledging 15.5 million euros towards paying for election-related materials and salaries of temporary electoral staff.

On the security front there is little likelihood that the Taliban and Islamic State will stop their relentless campaign against the Afghan government and army. The bomb blasts at voter registration centres and increasing incidents of violence suggest that unless the Afghan Army and NATO and the Americans are able to provide fool proof security for polling staff and voters including in the capital Kabul, the entire election process could dissolve into chaos.

Despite infrequent reports of back channel talks by some individuals and groups with one or the other faction, the Taliban have steadfastly refused to entertain offers of a dialogue and negotiations made by President Ghani--who wanted the Taliban to contest the elections as a political party--the Americans or Nato.

Even Saudi Arabia has been snubbed when it held an international Islamic Conference in July 2018 with reportedly Ulema from 57 countries participating to work for peace and stability in Afghanistan . The Taliban simply said that the conference was an attempt to make Afghanistan another Palestine by fastening the combatants’ hands and allowing the occupation and persecution to continue. They said that the conference was an American ploy and called it ‘a meeting arranged with US orders.’

The Taliban have stuck to their know position-talks only after all US led foreign troops leave the country—something not likely to happen anytime soon as the US President has just recently asked NATO allies to boost their military presence in Afghanistan.

It is easy to gauge what the Afghan people want - peace, security, an end to violence and the wherewithal to get on with their lives- something that was starkly demonstrated by the peace march that started from Taliban dominated Helmand province after a car bomb on March 23 killed at least 14 people in the capital Lashkar Gah.

The marchers arrived in Kabul in June 2018 and handed over a list of four demands to the President--- a ceasefire between the Taliban and government forces, negotiations between the two sides to result in an implemented law agreed by both sides and the withdrawal of foreign forces. They gave three days to the Taliban to respond to their demands.

The Taliban response was a complete dismissal with a statement saying that all ongoing efforts and calls for peace were the same ‘old American conspiracy’, and new movements have taken shape under the guise of neutral public and tribal moves to suppress the ongoing ‘Jihad’ and to strengthen the occupation of the United States.

With the Taliban obdurate and Islamic State gaining numbers, even if the elections were to go reasonably well, there is little likelihood that any new leadership would be able to give the average Afghan citizen the basic necessities for a decent life free from fear and desperation. For that the key lies with foreigners who seem content to keep the bloodshed going.