This post continues my series on the elections of September.
As I noted in a previous post, the Afghan elections of September 18 will be held under the single nontransferable vote system. Even if party affiliations are on the ballot, SNTV undermines the collective identity of parties by its very nature, and this has significant consequences for the way national politics is conducted.
With SNTV each electoral district elects more than one legislator, but unlike with proportional representation, there is no means for votes to be shared across candidates of the same party in the district. Instead, the winners are just the individual candidates with the most votes, regardless of party affiliation.
SNTV is a fairly rare electoral system, and for good reason. Most political scientists who specialize in electoral systems would consider it one of the very worst of all ways to elect legislators. SNTV was used in Japan till 1993, and that is the most famous case of the system. (The current legislatures of Colombia and Taiwan have been elected under SNTV, but the system will be replaced as of the next elections in those countries. It is also used in Jordan and Vanuatu (!), as well as some local nonpartisan elections in Alabama.)
In Japan’s post-war use of SNTV, the largest district was usually six seats, and most districts had 3 or 5 seats. Even such relatively small districts created an extremely personalized form of politics, with a dominant (but deeply factionalized) major party and a very fragmented oppositionâ€”both results created by the low share of votes a candidate needs in order to win under SNTV and the absence of mechanisms by which candidates of the same party can benefit from their copartisans’ vote-pulling ability.
In the Afghan case, the number of legislators elected is extremeley high in some provinces. For instance:
The winners will be the top 34, with the proviso that 9 have to be women (thus meaning, in practice, some men with higher vote totals will be skipped to ensure that no fewer than 9 of the 64 women are elected).
Barnett Rubin, in the International Herald Tribune back in March, 2005, said it well:
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.
Similarly, the International Crisis Group (IGC) has described this electoral system as a “lottery.”
Indeed, given 34 seats, it is likely some of the legislators elected in Kabul will have been the choice of fewer than 1.5% of voters in the district. (A good rule of thumb is that half a ‘Hare quota’ is sufficient for election under SNTV, where the quota is the reciprocal of the number of seats in the district.) But given the phenomenon described by Rubin, the last candidate elected could have far less than 1.5%.
The Age (Melbourne) explains the choice of this unusual system as follows:
The prohibition on candidates running under a party banner exists because, in the absence of a mature democracy, political parties become vehicles for personal leadership aspirations rather than a genuine policy platform.
This is certainly a valid point. The strict party-based electoral system of Iraq did indeed generate parties based more on allegiance to identifiable leadersâ€”think Grand Ayatollah Sistani, for exampleâ€”rather than programmatic parties on the West European model. Most voters in Iraq, where the requirement was to pick a list, rather than a candidate, simply voted for the party list associated with religious or ethnic leaders they recognized.
But how will Afghan voters vote? There is a telling anecdote in a fascinating story in the Telegraph set in the Wakhan Corrior (that little ‘finger’ of the country that ‘points’ at China). An ethnic Kyrgyz nomad says, “I will vote for Hamid Karzai” and his friends accompanying him all agree. Upon being informed that Karzai is not on the ballot, the man says:
If I can’t vote for Karzai then I will vote for whoever is going to the parliament from our village.
That is surely how the vast majority of Afghans will approach this election: Vote for some local notable. The result will be a National Assembly with no coherent majority, which will mean Karzai will have to piece support together by providing various payoffs (mostly jobs, pork, etc.) to factions of legislators in exchange for their support of Karzai’s policy initiatives.
The emerging Afghan comination of a president bargaining with a disorganized legislative branch stands in stark contrast to the emerging Iraqi pattern of a parliamentary system based on a coalition of centralized parties. Most political scientists would favor something closer to the Iraqi model, at least in the abstract (though few would have advised the single national district that was used for Iraq’s party-list election). Whether one or the other model is preferable for wartorn and divided societies like those of Afghanistan and Iraq could be a topic for an interesting debate (or a class assignment).