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Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, flanked by an image of President Karzai (file photo) (epa)
The lower house of the Afghan National Assembly, the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), began the confirmation debate over President Hamid Karzai's proposed 25-member cabinet on April 4. The process is expected to take about two weeks, and marks the first major cohabitation test for Afghanistan's elected legislature vis-a-vis the executive branch. The process also provides a litmus test of relations between Karzai's administration and the fractured opposition led by lower-house speaker Mohammad Yunos Qanuni.
The fact that the People's Council is questioning each proposed minister individually is in itself a defeat for President Karzai, whose preference was for a single, up-or-down vote on the entire cabinet.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on April 5, Karzai stressed his desire for a transparent confirmation process. He expressed his hope "that our deputies will accept or reject these choices according to professional standards, their patriotism, and their integrity; and that no other criteria should determine their decisions." Karzai expressly rejected possible objections based on "any regional or ethnic bias" and said, "If a minister is rejected, I hope that the reasons given for the rejection will be enunciated so that we know why our proposed ministers were not acceptable."
Article 74 of the Afghan Constitution approved in January 2004 stipulates that if the People's Council wants to reject a nominee, it should do so explicitly and "on basis of well-founded reasons." A simple majority of those lawmakers must then express no confidence in that nominee in a plenary vote.
Speaker Qanuni and his allies appear to be ready and willing to flex their muscle and challenge Karzai's dominance in the Afghan power structure. Some in Qanuni's camp regard the cabinet-confirmation process as a chance to demand that opposition members be included in the government (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," January 16, 2006).
The president clearly disagrees with that interpretation. Karzai challenged the Qanuni camp by reshuffling his cabinet in March -- days before his proposed government was presented to the National Assembly. The most obvious change was at the Foreign Ministry. Karzai gave that portfolio -- led for four years by Abdullah Abdullah -- to a former foreign-affairs adviser, Rangin Dadfar Spanta.
Abdullah was the last of the Shura-ye Nezar (Supervisory Council) triumvirate that was considered a strong power base in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. (The other two members of that "triumvirate" were former Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Qanuni himself, who served initially as Karzai's interior and later as education minister.)
Karzai stressed to Radio Free Afghanistan that Abdullah was not excluded, but rather chose to stay out of the new government. He emphasized that the makeup of the new cabinet is founded on "practical reasons...[not] political reasons," suggesting Karzai no longer regards Abdullah as a political asset.
Parliamentary speaker Qanuni called April 4 a "historic day" following a quarter of a century of pain. He said Afghans had finally arrived at a point where they were choosing their own cabinet. What Qanuni meant by the nation choosing its own cabinet will become clear as the confirmation hearings continue.
Qanuni might use the scrutiny of Karzai's choices to showcase the power of the opposition that he informally leads. That scenario would require generating enough votes to reject nominees who are seen as the president's main allies.
If Qanuni opts to flex opposition muscle -- and garners enough opposition to vote down few major nominees -- Karzai will be forced to recognize that an effective opposition exists in the People's Council. That would presumably lead him to either tailor his policies accordingly, or seek to incorporate the opposition into his own government.
But if Qanuni tries -- and fails -- to block nominees for political reasons, then his standing in the parliament and as the unofficial leader of the opposition could be in grave danger.
Alternatively -- and particularly if he cannot garner enough votes to reject major nominees -- Qanuni might try to portray himself as above partisan politics. That would dictate that he conspicuously seek to rally lawmakers by touting the merits and qualifications of nominees -- without regard to his stated agenda. Such an approach would leave the burden of demonstrating that his choices were the best for the country on Karzai's shoulders. But it would also allow the president to maintain virtually all political initiative -- ensuring there is no proactive opposition.
Whatever the outcome, the current confirmation process is -- to borrow Qanuni's characterization -- a "historic" event. Much of this debate is being heard by the Afghan public. What Afghans do with this opportunity will profoundly affect their march toward a democratic society.