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What Can Iran Learn from Afghanistan’s Electoral System?

February 1, 2020
Golnaz Mahdavi
13 min read
President Rouhani was sarcastic when he mentioned Afghanistan in a recent conference, but in reality, Iran can learn a lot from the Afghan electoral system
President Rouhani was sarcastic when he mentioned Afghanistan in a recent conference, but in reality, Iran can learn a lot from the Afghan electoral system

In the run-up to Iran’s parliamentary election on February 21, we look at how Afghanistan runs its elections, comparing it with the system of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The comparisons are alarming. Although Afghanistan has been troubled by war and conflict for decades, and regarded, at least by senior Iranian officials, as somewhat undeveloped, its electoral system appears to be more fit for purpose than Iran’s, and fosters an environment for freer and fairer elections.


“Let’s make the elections electronic,” said President Rouhani on Monday January 27, speaking at a convention of provincial and city governments from across the country. “Afghanistan has done it.” Then he laughed, and the audience laughed with him. “Let’s do it. It’s not such a big deal!”

His sarcasm was meant to suggest that Iran has fallen behind Afghanistan — a country that Iranians have always been encouraged to regard as backward and underdeveloped. Anybody who has ever lived in Iran, even for a short while, is familiar with this humiliating view Iranians tend to have of their neighbor. Rouhani’s insult basically begged the question: How could Iran, which is better and more advanced in all areas, fall behind “backward Afghanistan” when it comes to elections?

Rouhani’s statement at the convention elicited a range of responses online, and within the diplomatic arena too. In fact, it commanded so much attention that Hesamodin Ashna, Rouhani’s political advisor and the head of Center for Strategic Studies, and Alireza Moezzi, Rouhani’s Deputy Communications Director, were forced to hurriedly scramble over one another to justify his remarks [Persian link]. 

Most of the responses focused on Rouhani’s chauvinism, but they also raised the ineptitude of Iran’s political system and its failure to ensure free and fair elections. People commented that the Afghan government appeared to have been successful in creating a much more democratic and safe environment for elections, and in its handling complaints after elections.

So what are the fundamental differences between the political systems of Iran and Afghanistan? How do their electoral systems compare, what are their records on freedom of expression and freedom of the press? Are women present in the higher echelons of the countries’ politics?


Elections in Afghanistan

Following the 2014 presidential elections in Afghanistan, it was difficult to predict how the political situation would develop in the country. For years, all Afghanistan knew was war and insecurity. Today, the situation continues to be volatile and unstable, with ongoing conflict between the government’s military and insurgent groups. However, in recent years, the country has achieved positive outcomes, and its electoral system is one of them. 

Regardless of what kind of an election is being held, elections are organized and supervised by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission [Persian link]. This commission presents 15 potential members to the president of the republic, who chooses nine of them to be members. Members of the commission cannot hold positions within political parties, cannot be closely related to the candidates running in the elections and cannot be employed by the government. If, in a previous election an individual has been found guilty of wrongdoing, that individual is no longer allowed to be a member of the commission.

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission is a product of the country’s membership in the global Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which declares its mission to be promoting “democratic governance, institutions and values, working with parliaments and parliamentarians to articulate and respond to the needs and aspirations of the people” by advising governments about how to ensure free and democratic elections.

Interestingly, the Islamic Republic of Iran is also a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. However, Iranian elections do not follow the guidelines proposed by the IPU. On the contrary, they are under the control of the Supreme Leader, with the direct involvement of the government as the organizer, and the Guardian Council as the supervising body.

Unlike Iranian electoral laws, the election laws of Afghanistan are very simple and clear. They outline what criteria candidates must meet, and list specific activities that can disqualify a candidate, whether he or she is running for the parliament or for the presidency. This clarity forces election organizers to follow the letter of the law instead of interpreting it.

According to Article 20 of Afghanistan’s election laws [Persian link], candidates are banned from committing the following deeds:

  •     ▪Pursuit of goals that go against the fundamental principles of the holy religion of Islam, the letter of the constitution and values embedded in the constitution.
  •     ▪Using force and threats or propaganda by force.
  •     ▪Promoting discrimination based on ethnicity, language, sect and religion.
  •     ▪Creating genuine danger to individual rights and liberties or intentional harming of public order and security.
  •     ▪Having unofficial armed forces or membership to them.
  •     ▪Receiving funds from foreign sources.
  •     ▪Receiving funds from illegal domestic sources.

According to Afghan election laws, all Afghan citizens can participate in every type of election, including parliamentary and presidential elections, regardless of whether they are female or male, Sunni or Shia.

Afghan election laws are very clear on how to handle a candidate that has been involved in corruption. In Iran, however, the laws on financial contributions to candidates and their campaigns remain unclear, providing an opportunity for corruption, even though the current election system was put in place 40 years ago, and has been in use during that entire period.


Supervising Elections in Afghanistan

In addition to the Independent Election Commission, Afghanistan also has an Election Complaints Commission, which investigates irregularities and complaints [Persian link]. Along with the election commission,  the complaints commission examines the qualifications of the candidates if it receives a complaint about a candidate, and not based on personal opinions or reports by security agencies. As a result, candidates in Afghanistan are not qualified or disqualified prior to the election period, and anybody can become a candidate for the parliament or the presidency, unless that candidate is found guilty of a deed specified in Article 20 and the Election Complaints Commission decides, after examining the complaints, that that candidate should be disqualified.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, however, candidates must be approved before they can run in any election. All would-be candidates must provide the Guardian Council with proof and evidence that they are committed to Islam and the “guardianship of the Islamic jurist,” the fundamental tenet of the Iranian regime. However, it is not enough to state this commitment, even in writing, and potential candidates must prove it by presenting documents. If they cannot provide such evidence to the satisfaction of the Guardian Council, the body disqualifies them from running in elections.

The next Iranian legislative election is scheduled for February 21 and, as of now, the Guardian Council has disqualified, or “not qualified,” close to 10,000 hopeful candidates because they could not provide convincing evidence that they do support Islam and the guardianship of the Islamic jurist.


Women and Ethnic and Religious Minorities: The Afghan Advantage

Elections are one of the main foundations of democracy. Without certain guarantees, they are meaningless. One of these guarantees must be the right of women and ethnic and religious minorities to both vote and run in elections. In Afghanistan, women can be candidates for both the parliament and the president while, in Iran, for more than 40 years, the Guardian Council has used an Arabic word in the constitution — rijal, meaning “men” or “gentlemen” — to deny women the chance to run for president, the highest elected office in the land.

In addition, in Afghanistan, all citizens — regardless of whether they are Pashtun or Tajik, Muslim or non-Muslim, Sunni or Shia — can run for any elected office, provided that they have not broken election laws. In Iran, however Sunnis and other religions that have been officially recognized by the constitution can only run for the parliament and local councils. And there have been even movements to deny them even this much. For instance, in 2017, the Guardian Council disqualified Sepanta Niknam, a Zoroastrian member of Yazd City Council who had just won a second term, to take up his office because he is not a Muslim. He was eventually reinstated by the Expediency Council and a vote by the parliament — but the threats still exists. And the situation for religions that are not officially recognized is even worse. The Baha’is and the followers of the Yarsan faith are not even allowed to run for the parliament or local councils. 

In Iran, only Shia men who can prove their commitment to the “guardianship of the Islamist jurist” can be candidates for the office of the president of the republic — and no one else. 

In Afghanistan, however, 27 percent of the seats in the parliament are held by women [Persian link], whereas women hold less than five percent of the seats in the outgoing Iranian parliament — and that is even with the current term having the most number of woman representatives in Iran’s parliamentarian history. In Afghanistan, women constitute 22 percent of local government employees, while in Iran, in an economy that is significantly state-owned, twice as many women are unemployed than men.

The participation of women in the Afghan government is not limited to those who are employed by the government. The presidents of both election commissions that were responsible for holding the sensitive and landmark presidential election in September 2019 are women. So are the presidents of the independent Human Rights Commission and the Constitutional Oversight Commission. The latter commission is similar to Iran’s Guardian Council, but it is impossible to imagine that the Iranian regime would allow a woman to replace Ahmad Jannati as the secretary of the Guardian Council.

Moreover, the three ministers of Information and Culture, Women’s Affairs, and Mines in Afghan’s unity cabinet are also women and, for the first time, women have been appointed as deputy ministers in a number of key ministries. Hassan Rouhani might mock the Afghans, but in his first term he did not have a single woman minister in his cabinet and he only appointed women in the two largely ceremonial positions of Advisor in Women’s Affairs and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. In his second administration, Rouhani did add Laya Joneydi as the vice president for legal affairs, but he gave Shahindokht Molaverdi a ceremonial role as his special assistant for citizenship rights. Molaverdi was later forced to resign because of a legal loophole. 


No International Observers in Iranian Elections

The Guardian Council, the members of which are appointed by the Supreme Leader, is the only body with the authority to supervise elections. It is true that the council has always encouraged candidates and their representatives attend polling stations and even participate in the proceedings to qualifying candidates, but the facts show that, even in the best of times, these observers play no real role. Observers must submit their complaints to the Guardian Council which, structurally and legally, is totally subordinate to Ayatollah Khamenei. Consequently, not only are its final decisions not trustworthy, the council’s record has shown that it is prepared to buck precedents and come up with new interpretations of the law. In addition to the case of Councillor Sepanta Niknam, suspended after he had already served a term because he is a Zoroastrian, there is also the  case of Minoo Khaleghi, a woman who was elected to the parliament in 2016 elections but was then disqualified by the Guardian Council for “shaking hands with unrelated men.” There are many other examples.

In Afghanistan, however, in all phases of the electoral process, institutions responsible for the elections are in contact with impartial international bodies at the United Nations, the European Union and independent journalists in an effort to improve the quality of Afghan elections. Of course, it must be noted that in past decades the government of Afghanistan has been engaged in a war with the Taliban but, despite the fact that dangerous conditions tend to worsen around election times, the government has managed to prevent elections from turning into problematic security matters.

But in Iran, in violation of the law, the Revolutionary Guards officially or unofficially attend polling stations and even interfere in the work of observers and the candidates’ representatives — and if any international observers were present, they would no doubt interfere with their work too. An example of this illegal security interference happened during the 2009 presidential election, when security forces attacked the election headquarters of the reformist candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi and prevented observers from reporting electoral violations by arresting many of them [Persian link].


Afghanistan’s Press Freedom vs. Iran’s Press Prison

The Afghan constitution is very clear on its position on freedom of expression, as stated in its Article 34: “Freedom of expression shall be inviolable. Every Afghan shall have the right to express thoughts through speech, writing, illustrations as well as other means in accordance with provisions of this constitution. Every Afghan shall have the right, according to provisions of law, to print and publish on subjects without prior submission to state authorities.   Directives  related  to  the press, radio and television as well as publications and other mass media shall be regulated by law.”

In December 2019, in its annual report, the Committee to Protect Journalists stated that at least 250 journalists are imprisoned around the world. In Iran the number of journalists in jail in 2019 increased to 11, while in Afghanistan, despite the widespread insecurity and the war with the Taliban, no journalist has been in jail since 2008. In fact, the reporter who was detained in 2008 was arrested by the American military, not by the Afghan government [Persian link].

Meanwhile, Reporters without Borders (RSF), a defender of the freedom of the press based in Paris, has described Iran as “the world’s biggest jailer of women journalists.” Marzieh Amiri is only one woman journalist among several, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 148 lashes in August 2019 after attending International Workers’ Day rallies while reporting for Shargh newspaper. She was charged with “conspiracy and assembly against national security,” “anti-government propaganda” and “disturbing public order” while, in fact, she was simply covering an event of which the authorities did not approve.

Many male journalists are imprisoned in Iran too. One of the most recent arrests was Alireza Toomar, a young photographer who was detained on November 16 in Tehran’s Vanak Square during nationwide protests over the sudden and steep rise in gas prices. His family has not heard from him since he was arrested. Human rights activists are afraid that Toomar might have been killed by security forces, who are trying to hide their responsibility.

In its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, RSF gave the Islamic Republic of Iran the rank of 170 out of 180 countries, a drop of 6 in ranking compared to 2018. Afghanistan, with its ongoing civil war and the resulting deaths of 15 journalists and media workers, ranks 121. Moreover, while in Iran the main threat to democracy, freedom of the press and freedom of the expression is posed by the government, in Afghanistan the main dangers to journalists are the Taliban and the Islamic State (ISIS), the same fundamentalist forces that the central government is fighting against.

Therefore, it would appear that President Rouhani would have been better placed to smirk at the extrajudicial power of the Supreme Leader and the illegal interference by the Guardian Council in elections, not at a country that, despite years and years of civil war, is endeavoring to respect and uphold values such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, political participation by women and by ethnic and religious minorities — the main pillars of democracy.


Related Coverage:

The Supreme Imbecile and the Widening Credibility Chasm, 22 January 2020

What Will Iran's Next Parliament Look Like?, 21 January 2020

High Ranking Iranian Official Threatens Iranian Journalists in the Diaspora, 10 January 2020

The Cat, the Mouse, the Tyrant and his Referendum, 12 April 2019




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