Topic: Democracy International – AERCA

By Mayura Iyer Post date: Feb 03, 2016


In order to increase credibility, inclusiveness, and transparency in Afghan elections, as well as reform electoral law, the process for appointing commissioners, and the voting system, USAID provided Democracy International with a grant to implement AERCA – Afghanistan Electoral Reform and Civil Advocacy project. Despite several successes of the project, including implementing a new electoral law and process for appointing commissioners, the efforts of the project were not focused enough to target key demographics, and failed to reform the voting system. Therefore, future efforts by AERCA and Democracy International must reach out to marginalized groups that have low voter engagement, and must raise awareness in targeted ways about the benefits of a voting system. Additionally, the public opinion surveys conducted by AERCA must continue in the future in order to gauge the public will towards election reform.

Problems with Current Afghan Elections

Afghan elections have suffered from an overall lack of credibility, inclusiveness, and transparency in their processes and institutions. Afghanistan does not have an accurate voter registry, and there is ample opportunity for millions of duplicate and false voter cards, undermining public confidence in the credibility of the electoral process. Elections have not been held at scheduled times, with many accusations of fabricated results, fraud, and corruption. Instability, threats of violence, and corruption also prevent many eligible voters from being able to do so. Moreover, the processes for vetting candidates, as well as the rules of the electoral process, lack transparency, and the president has been able to modify features of the processes in run-up elections in order to make it difficult for citizens to contest elections.

These issues are related to problems with the current voting system, method of appointing commissioners and broader electoral law reform. Currently, Afghanistan uses a single non-transferrable vote (SNTV) system, where voters in a multi-seat constituency can still only vote for one candidate. The seats are then allocated to the candidates who receive the most votes, which can lead to problems with equal representation and with true public opinion on who should hold those seats. Additionally, the method for appointing independent election commissioners and the electoral laws themselves are known for corruption and inefficiency.

The key internal actors at play with reforming Afghan Elections are the Afghan government and the Afghan electorate. The external actors include USAID, Democracy International, civil service organizations (CSOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other consulting groups. Key institutions to note are the Independent Electoral Commission, the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission, the Afghan parliament, and the Afghan president. The biggest interest in reforming Afghan elections is navigating how to increase the credibility, transparency, and inclusiveness of elections under a system where many government officials and political elite benefit from the status quo.

The Office of Inspector General’s Afghanistan Country Office conducted an audit to determine the effectiveness of USAID’s Afghanistan assistance across four different programs aimed at improving the fairness and efficiency of Afghan elections. This case study focuses on the effectiveness of one of these projects: the Afghanistan Electoral Reform and Civil Advocacy (AERCA) Program by Democracy International. I investigate the effectiveness of this project across the following measures:

  1. Strengthening the Afghan Government’s capacity to effectively administer elections, specifically through a more comprehensive process for appointing independent election commissioners
  2. Increasing citizen awareness and engagement in the electoral process
  3. Enhancing the democratic political party system through increased credibility, inclusiveness and transparency in elections
  4. Producing elected bodies at all levels that are more representative, specifically through reforming electoral law and the current voting system

Democracy International – AERCA Project Overview

The Afghanistan Electoral Reform and Civil Advocacy (AERCA) Program was launched by Democracy International, with over $29.2 million in funding from USAID, in order to “develop capacity and facilitate an Afghan-led electoral reform dialogue to strengthen Afghan democracy and foster innovations in governance” (USAID Office of the Inspector General). The implementation period was from July 2009 to June 2014. There were several goals for the program to accomplish: increasing credibility, inclusiveness and transparency of elections, as well as reforming electoral law, the process for appointing commissioners and the voting system.


Increase Credibility of Elections

Through public opinion surveys and civic engagement efforts, AERCA built the research capacity of electoral organizations by providing a comprehensive understanding of public understanding and outlook on Afghan elections. Most notably, AERCA found that “only slightly more than half of Afghans believe ‘they can influence government decisions by participating in political processes’ and about a quarter feel ‘they have no influence at all’ (USAID Office of the Inspector General). Additionally, 28 percent of respondents named corruption in the election commission as the most significant problem facing the 214 elections – the most common response (USAID and Democracy International). These findings helped direct the focus of USAID efforts in other concurrent projects to improve credibility of elections.

Increase Inclusiveness of Elections

In order to increase engagement across populations in Afghanistan, AERCA implemented civic outreach and education activities along with the Consortium for Electoral and Political Processes Support. Direct outreach programs reached more than 2,700 individuals in fiscal year (FY) 2013, and outreach through radio programming reached more than 10 million Afghans in the same time period. Additionally, surveys by AERCA identified several barriers to inclusiveness in electoral processes, including violence, corruption and discrimination by voting officials, and a shortage of female searchers to allow female voters to participate (USAID Office of the Inspector General).

However, these efforts were very broad and not focused on targeting weaker populations with civic engagement efforts. While Pashtuns make up 42 percent of the ethnic composition of the Afghan population, only 42 percent of Pashtuns voted in the 2010 parliamentary elections. By contrast, 61 percent or more of smaller ethnic groups, such as Uzbek, Turkmen, Tajik, and Hazara, voted in these elections.

Increasing Transparency

AERCA conducted some of the “most comprehensive public opinion research on Afghan democracy to date” leading to a more thorough understanding of Afghan citizen’s perceptions of democracy in their country (USAID and Democracy International). AERCA’s public consultations on the legal framework for elections through discussions, debates and other events brought together representatives of leading CSOs with political parties to make recommendations for Parliament to consider in preparing a new election law.

Reforming Electoral Law

In order to facilitate a dialogue on reforming electoral law, AERCA brought together members of parliament, CSOs and other organizations to discuss feasible reforms. This led to the approval of an electoral law with majority approval in both houses and by President Karzai.

Reforming the Process for Appointing Commissioners

As noted earlier, AERCA found that 28 percent of respondents feel that corruptions within election commission was the most significant problem facing the 2014 Afghan elections – the highest percent for an issue facing the elections. Democracy International facilitated discussions with CSOs to present and refine recommendations for Afghanistan’s elections to reform the process for appointing independent election commissioners, which were presented to Parliament. This research and subsequent recommendations led to the adoption of the July 2013 Law on the Structure, Duties, and Authorities of the Independent Electoral Commission and Independent Electoral Complaints Commission, which establishes “a selection committee to vet eligible commissioners and recommend individuals to the Afghan President” (USAID Office of the Inspector General). The law also mandates that the selection committee include commissioners that are from both chambers of Parliament, the Supreme Court, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and CSOs.

Voting System Reform

Through Democracy International, AERCA provided CSOs members of Parliament, and government officials with data-driven research to foster a dialogue and several training programs on voting system alternatives, specifically focusing on mixed, single non-transferable vote (SNTV) and proportional representation systems (Democracy International). This research was gained through four fact-finding missions to India, Mexico, South Africa, and New Zealand. The goal was to find alternatives to the current SNTV system, which leads to inequalities in representation of multi-candidate constituencies and in information asymmetries in terms of true public will to elect a candidate. However, despite efforts to reform the current system, the upcoming Afghan elections will continue with an SNTV system.

Overview of the Success and Failures of AERCA:

AERCA succeeded in providing information and facilitating productive dialogue that led to a reformation of the process for appointing independent election commissioners that was approved by Parliament and President Karzai. The program also increased the number of citizens impacted by civic outreach, thus increasing the inclusiveness of elections overall. It also facilitated dialogue that is intended to continue into future election cycles on reforming electoral laws, including a new electoral law that was more widely approved, and approved by President Karzai. These reforms are important for creating an atmosphere for truly democratic elections in Afghanistan.

Additionally, the public opinion surveys and civic engagement efforts were essential in increasing the transparency and credibility of elections. By gauging public opinion on these measures, the surveys highlighted reforms to target problems with Afghan elections in the future.

However, overall, the project did not increase the inclusiveness of Afghan elections. Afghanistan will still continue to use a SNTV system of voting, despite efforts to push reform towards a mixed vote or proportional representation system. Reforming the current voting system is essential to increasing the true representativeness of elected officials in the elections. Additionally, AERCA’s civic engagement efforts failed to target and engage critical ethnic populations that do not participate in elections. Particularly, Pashtuns, who make up the majority of the population, have the lowest voter participation rates. There are also difficulties in reaching out to rural groups in the remote parts of Afghanistan. In order to truly bring comprehensive electoral reform to Afghanistan, the inclusiveness of the elections must be addressed.


Given the successes, failures, and efforts outlined above, these are the recommendations that AERCA and Democracy International should take:

  • Incorporate awareness about SNTV versus other voting systems into civic engagement efforts to increase political pressure for reform.
  • Be more focused in civic engagement efforts – target rural areas that are harder to reach, specific ethnic groups such as the Pashtuns, women and other groups that have lower civic engagement. Without reaching these groups, elections will not be truly representative of the Afghan population.
  • Continue to build upon previous surveys to inform future decisions on election reform in Afghanistan. These surveys are essential in understanding the public will, and making sure projects are designed towards what the public wants.

These steps will allow for a more refined approach towards election reform in Afghanistan by Democracy International.



USAID and Democracy International. “Elections and Civic Education Lessons Learned Survey.” USAID. February 2015. Web. 30 March 2015.

USAID Office of the Inspector General. “Review of USAID/Afghanistan’s Electoral Assistance Program.” USAID. 6 February 2014. Web. 30 March 2015.

Democracy International. “Afghanistan Electoral Reform and Civic Advocacy Project (AERCA)”.Democracy International.n.d. Web. 30 March 2015.