Though Afghanistan has had democratic elections throughout the 20th century, the election institutions have varied as changes in regimes have disrupted political continuity. Presidential elections in 2009 raised doubts about the legitimacy and power of the current electoral system, established in the 2003 constitution, in both the national political environment and the international community.
In 1949, Afghan Prime Minister Shah Mahmud allowed relatively free national assembly elections, and the resulting seventh Afghan Parliament (1949–1951), which has become known as the "Liberal Parliament", gave voice to criticism of the government and traditional institutions, allowed opposition political groups to come to life, and enacted some liberal reforms, including laws providing for a free press. This being the seventh parliament, six must have been elected from 1923 to around 1944.
The Afghan parliamentary election in 1952 was considered a step backward from the one in 1949. As part of the government crackdown in 1951 and 1952 ending liberalization, the Kabul University student union had been dissolved in 1951, newspapers critical of the government had been shut down, and many of the leaders of the opposition had been jailed.
In 1964, King Mohammed Zahir Shah ordered the convening of a Loya jirga - a national gathering that included the members of the National Assembly, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and both constitutional commissions - to draft and approve a new Afghan constitution. 167 members of the assembly were elected by the provinces, and 34 members were appointed directly by the king. Although most of the 452 people (including six women) assembled were predominantly officials who could be expected to support the royal line, the Loya Jirga of September 1964 also included members elected from the entire nation. While the government did screen out many potential dissidents, "on the whole ... delegates to the Loya Jirgah appeared to represent the full range of social, political, and religious opinion."
Most observers described the 1965 election as remarkably fair despite difficulties such as widespread illiteracy, low voter turnout, lack of political parties, and attempts by some government officials to influence the results. The 216-member Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament, included representation by anti-royalists, supporters of the king, Pashtun nationalists, both the left and right of the political spectrum, entrepreneurs and industrialists, political liberals, a small leftist group, as well as conservative Muslim leaders who still opposed secularization. This was Afghanistan's 12th parliament, so there must have been three more National Assembly elections in 1955-62.
The 1969 parliamentary elections, with voter turnout not much higher than in 1965, produced a parliament that more or less reflected the distribution of power and population of rural Afghanistan - conservative landowners and businessmen predominated, and many more non-Pashtuns were elected than in the previous legislature. Most of the urban liberals and all female delegates lost their seats. Few leftists were in the new 13th parliament, although Babrak Karmal and Hafizullah Amin (a mathematics teacher educated in the United States) were elected from districts in and near the capital Kabul.
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In 1987, the Soviet-backed Afghan communist government introduced a law permitting the formation of other political parties, announced that it would be prepared to share power with representatives of opposition groups in the event of a coalition government, and issued a new constitution providing for a new bicameral National Assembly (Meli Shura), consisting of a Senate (Sena) and a House of Representatives (Wolesi Jirga), and a president to be indirectly elected to a 7-year term.
Local elections were held throughout the country in August 1987, with a considerable number of the elected representatives reported to be non-PDPA members. On September 30, Mohammad Najibullah was unanimously elected as President of the Revolutionary Council. In November 1987, a Loya jirga unanimously elected Najibullah as President of the State.
In April 1988, elections were held for both houses of the new National Assembly. The People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) won 46 seats in the House of Representatives and controlled the government with support from the National Front, which won 45 seats, and from various newly recognized left-wing parties, which had won a total of 24 seats. Although the election was boycotted by the Mujahideen, the government left 50 of the 234 seats in the House of Representatives, as well as a small number of seats in the Senate, vacant in the hope that the guerrillas would end their armed struggle and participate in the government.
Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the ouster of the communist government in April 1992, an indirect election for president took place in December 1992. An interim government, headed by a prime minister, was formed in June 1993. .
Under the 2001 Bonn Agreement, Afghanistan was scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in 2004 in order to replace the transitional government led by American-backed Hamid Karzai since his appointment in December 2001. Presidential elections were held in 2004, but parliamentary elections were not held until mid-September 2005. See March 2005 UN Security Council report on parliamentary elections delay.
Afghanistan held parliamentary and provincial council elections on September 18, 2005. Final results were delayed by accusations of election fraud, and were finally announced on November 12, 2005.
Former warlords and their followers gained the majority of seats in both the lower house and the provincial council (which elects the members of the upper house). Women won 28% of the seats in the lower house, six more than the 25% guaranteed in the 2004 Constitution.
Turnout was estimated at about 50%, substantially lower than at the presidential election in October 2004. This was blamed on the lack of identifiable party lists as a result of Afghanistan's new electoral law, which left voters in many cases unclear on who they were voting for.
The Afghan presidential and provincial council elections held on August 20, 2009 were widely characterized as marred by lack of security, violence, extremely low voter turnout, and widespread ballot stuffing, intimidation, and other electoral fraud. Over 2,800 complaints were received by the Election Complaints Commission, with the largest proportion concerning irregularities at the poll, including ballot box stuffing and voter intimidation. The New York Times wrote, "fraud was so pervasive that nearly a quarter of all votes were thrown out." According to an article by The Times, "some 1.26 million recorded votes were excluded from an election that cost the international community more than $300 million." (Another estimate placed the cost at $500 million.)
On October 20, 2009, under heavy U.S. and ally pressure, President Hamid Karzai announced his acquiescence to a run-off vote between himself and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, to be held November 7. Finally on November 1, however, Abdullah announced that he would no longer be participating in the run-off because his demands for changes in the electoral commission had not been met, and a "transparent election is not possible." A day later, on November 2, 2009, officials of the very same election commission cancelled the run-off and declared Hamid Karzai as President of Afghanistan for another 5-year term. According to the New York Times, the Afghan election commission and Karzai had been under intense pressure from the United States and its allies to cancel the run-off. Abdullah said the appointment had "no legal basis" and Afghans deserved a better government. He stated:
"A government that is appointed by an illegitimate commission, a commission that has tainted its own legitimacy, cannot bring the rule of law to the country, it cannot fight the corruption."
The next parliamentary elections were held on September 18, 2010. In July 2010, Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan and head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), described these as the "mother of all issues" elections. "They will not be Swiss elections, they are going to be Afghan elections," he said, suggesting the event might not fit the Western definition of democracy. More than 2,600 candidates, including more than 400 women, are running for office.
During the run-up to the elections in September 2010, the Taliban intimidated villagers in certain areas from voting. People in the villages would not vote because the Taliban left night letters warning they will cut off the finger of anyone if they find it marked with the indelible ink used to prevent multiple voting.
In late November 2010, Afghanistan's election commission disqualified 21 candidates from the September 18 parliamentary elections for alleged fraudulent activities, a spokesman said. 19 of the candidates were winning or leading their races, according to partial election results, while two others had failed to win seats.
A presidential election was held in Afghanistan on 5 April 2014. Incumbent president Hamid Karzai was not eligible to run due to term limits. An initial field of 27 candidates was whittled down to 8 with front runners Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. Fraud allegations tainting the final result resulted in a recount of votes at 1,900 of the 23,000 polling stations. Ghani was eventually declared the winner in September 2014.