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Elections and Registration in Afghanistan (ERA) Project

Options for an Electoral System for the
Afghanistan Wolesi Jirga
ERA Topical Report #3

Jørgen Elklit
February 22, 2003

Article 43 of the 1964 Constitution of Afghanistan provided for the election of members of the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House) of the Shura (Parliament) by plurality in single-member constituencies (i.e., first-past-the-post elections). Two elections were conducted on that basis in the 1960s.

However, the 2001 Bonn Agreement requires that the free and fair elections foreseen "no later than two years from the convening of the Emergency Loya Jirga" (i.e., June 2004) must result in "a gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative government" (italics added, JE). The Bonn Agreement also states that Afghanistan's 1964 Constitution is only applicable until the adoption of a new Constitution and insofar as it is not inconsistent with the Bonn Agreement.

"Fully representative government" (italics added, JE) can only be achieved if elections are conducted on the basis of a system of proportional representation (PR), as majoritarian electoral systems can only accidentally provide for a sufficiently representative government.

Even without such guidance from the Bonn Agreement, a reasoned choice based on the eight well established criteria for choosing an electoral system, which are listed below, evidently leads in the direction of a PR electoral system. Consequently, and for both reasons given, the 2004 Wolesi Jirga elections should be conducted as PR elections. Proportional representation electoral systems, however, are not one particular electoral system only, but a whole (even extended) family of electoral systems. This necessitates a choice also among the various PR electoral systems that have developed over the years. The reasoned choice among electoral systems is normally based on a balanced weighting of a considerable number of criteria, among which one usually finds the following eight concerns (here adopted from Reynolds, Reilly, et al., 1997):

Trade-offs between these eight criteria are unavoidable. This is particularly the case in transitional and post-conflict elections, where time constraints, ethnic tensions, representation issues, language and literacy issues, expected outcomes under certain conditions, and other elements are important factors to include when the final decision on the electoral system and its constituent components is eventually taken. Furthermore, various more specific issues in relation to the various PR systems under scrutiny also need to be considered carefully.

One can identify at least seven PR-specific issues to consider and decide upon. Since these issues are interrelated, they must be dealt with simultaneously.

As argued above, the 2004 Wolesi Jirga elections should be conducted using a PR electoral system. PR elections require constituencies with more than one seat, so-called multi-member constituencies (or districts). The reason is that only with more than one seat can seats be distributed among contesting parties in such a way that the seat distribution within the constituency reflects–more or less perfectly–the distribution of votes for parties and independent candidates. The more seats in a constituency, the easier it is to reflect reasonably well the vote pattern for parties, so that a party with 17% of the vote will also get approximately 17% of the seats.

Systems where the entire country for all practical purposes is one PR constituency (such as The Netherlands, South Africa, Denmark, Germany and Israel) will therefore have an almost perfect correspondence (at this level) between the distribution of votes and the distribution of seats (for parties above the electoral threshold, if any). If, however, parties are only contesting at the national level and based on national list of candidates, voters often tend to feel that they have no proper local or regional representation and that they are not aware of who their representative(s) is (are).

The remedy is either to allocate all seats in smaller multi-member constituencies (often identical to regional, administrative subdivisions of the country, such as provinces, regions or counties) or to combine the overall national allocation of seats with a regional or local allocation of some of the seats, which are then accounted for in the final computations. If the allocation of seats at the local level takes place as plurality elections in single-member constituencies, one often talks about Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) elections. The MMP electoral system is well known from Germany and has been introduced in a couple of countries over the last 10 years (e.g., New Zealand and Lesotho and the assembly elections in Scotland and Wales) and it has been debated elsewhere also.

The MMP electoral system has a number of advantages but also some disadvantages, not least in traditional countries with low literacy levels and a weak party structure. The reason for these disadvantages–at least in countries with weak administrative structures, weak party structures and low levels of literacy–is that an ordinary MMP electoral system requires:

Based on the above reasoning, the options for the 2004 Wolesi Jirga electoral systems are primarily two, even though a third option (introduced below) is also available. This judgment is based on the wording of the Bonn agreement, the various criteria for choosing electoral systems, and the obvious need for a simple system that can be fully understood and appreciated by voters and parties already in these first elections. Taken together, these reasons rule out the use of a straightforward MMP electoral system. The main electoral system options are then these two:

The third option, not to be ruled out beforehand, as it would not require voters to cast two ballots, would be to combine these two systems in the following way:

As these three electoral system options all have considerable merit, it is strongly recommended that they form the main basis for the future discussion about the electoral system to be implemented for the 2004 Wolesi Jirga elections.

  1. that this will detach the preparation of the election from the completion and publication of results of the pre-census exercise, and
  2. that the direct link between the number of registered voters in a province and the number of seats allocated for distribution within the province provides a strong incentive to all political movements and groupings to get all potential voters, i.e., also women, to register before the election, as a low registration level in a province would have the immediate consequence of lowering number of seats for the province.
       1. For the June 2004 elections, the suggested 225 seats in the Wolesi Jirga under option 2 (and maybe 200 under option 3) are allocated to the 32 provinces (or whatever the actual number of provinces may be) in strict proportionality to the sum of two figures: (1) the final number of registered voters in each province and (2) the geographical area of each province in square kilometres, maybe multiplied by a factor 10 (the exact factor has to be decided on, but 10 appears to be a reasonable choice).
  2. A tentative allocation of 225 seats to provinces under option 2, based on average population forecasts for each province plus the area in square kilometres multiplied by 10, yields the following results:
    2 seats:    1 province (Nuristan)
    3 seats:    4 provinces (Logar, Kunar, Laghman, Kapisa)
    4 seats:    7 provinces (Khost, Paktya, Sar-i-Pul, Badghis, Nimroz, Zabul,
    5 seats:    3 provinces (Wardak, Paktika, Jawzjan)
    6 seats:    2 provinces (Samangan, Farah)
    7 seats:    3 provinces (Takhar, Ghor, Parwan)
    8 seats:    5 provinces (Kunduz, Baghlan, Balkh, Faryab, Uruzgan)
    9 seats:    1 province (Badakhshan)
    10 seats:  0 provinces
    11 seats:  1 province (Hilmand)
    12 seats:  3 provinces (Ghazni, Nangarhar, Kandahar)
    13 seats:  0 provinces
    14 seats:  0 provinces
    15 seats:  1 province (Herat)
    24 seats:  1 province (Kabul)

A similar calculation based on the 200 seats under option 3 has not been conducted, but the distribution will obviously follow the same pattern.


Option 1:
Simple PR in one overall national constituency, closed party lists

Option 2:
Simple PR in 32 multi-member constituencies, seats allocated proportionally to constituencies, closed party lists

Option 3:
As option 2, but some compensatory seats are allocated to parties underrepresented in multi-member constituencies

1. Simplicity of system

5 5 4

2. Additional data required to allocated seats to constituencies




3. Number of ballot papers required

5 5 5

4. Expected effects on the formation of national political movements ("parties")




5. Will political, regional and other diversities be well reflected in the Wolesi Jirga?




6. Can voters hold individual politicians directly accountable?




7. How easily can individual candidates be elected?




8. Level of overall proportionality (if no electoral threshold is implemented under options 1 and 3)




Sum of 1. -8.

30 31 29


The three electoral system options discussed above must be carefully presented to all stakeholders. The options must be closely scrutinised and debated at the appropriate political levels before a decision is taken on which system to apply in the 2004 Wolesi Jirga elections. But there appear to be no urgent need to finalise this decision-making process as there are certainly more serious problems now in relation to other elements of the election preparation process.

The provisions for the 2004 Wolesi Jirga elections as well as the relevant title in the Constitutional Proposal should at least include the following elements and relevant portions of articles under Title Four in the 1964 Constitution:

An Independent (Central) Electoral Commission should be established. The Electoral Commission will have x members, of which at least one shall have legal qualifications at par with a judge of the High Court. The chairman and the members of the Electoral Commission are appointed by the president, when they have been identified according to procedures laid down in the Electoral Act. The procedures must provide for an open, transparent and unbiased scrutiny of possible candidates, who must not at the time of their appointment or during their term of office be members of any political movement or party. The Electoral Act must also specify (in general terms) how the Secretariat of the Electoral Commission will be structured and for which period the commissioners are appointed. The period should be longer than the expected parliamentary electoral term, which was four years in the 1964 Constitution, and also longer than the presidential term, if an elected presidency is eventually included in the Constitution.

The Constitution should also indicate that there will be some sort of Electoral Tribunal (Court), which will deal with serious electoral queries and complaints as stipulated in more detail in the Electoral Law. Complaints should always first be submitted to the Electoral Commission, which will function as first instance in election-related complaint cases.

Criteria for voter eligibility and membership of both Houses of the Shura (Parliament) must also be included in the Constitution. This is particularly important in relation to internally displaced persons (IDP) and refugees residing outside Afghanistan.

Electoral thresholds are not necessary under option 2; under options 1 and 3 the recommendation is not to implement any electoral threshold as it is more important to have all strands of opinion represented in the Wolesi Jirga than to have them only outside that body.

No special provisions for the representation of women have been included in these recommendations as there is no reason to believe that such provisions will be accepted and will improve the quality of the 2004 Wolesi Jirga elections. However, those preparing lists of candidates should be encouraged to include as many women as possible (and in winnable positions) on their lists.

If a system with an elected president is eventually included in the Constitution, provisions for the election of the president must also be included. A two-round majority system is proposed, as it will ensure that the president has been supported by more than 50% of the voters whether he or she is elected in the first or the second round.