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Afghan Political Crisis Simmers Despite Positive Signs

  • Abubakar Siddique

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (standing) addresses the Afghan parliament in February 2010.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (standing) addresses the Afghan parliament in February 2010.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is sending out mixed signals as he prepares to complete the puzzle of Afghanistan's bicameral parliament.

The first piece, the 249-seat lower house, was put in place by voters who participated in September's deeply flawed parliamentary elections. Karzai's job now is to fill out the parliament by appointing 34 senators to the upper house, as he has promised to do by January 20, when he will formally inaugurate the new legislature.

It might therefore appear that four months of political deadlock is about to end. But palace insiders say Karzai remains furious over the outcome of the recent elections. A number of losing candidates, many of them Karzai allies, continue to protest the results. Karzai meanwhile faces diminished representation of fellow Pashtuns in the lower house, which could put him at a disadvantage as he tries to push through his plans for reconciliation with the Taliban.

Well-placed sources in Kabul also say that Karzai faces the wrath of Pashtuns if their complaints about underrepresentation turn into a political movement against his administration. This, observers suggest, could deal a death blow to his fledgling governing coalition made up of regional strongmen, pro-Western technocrats, Islamists, and leftists.

Vote At Heart Of Problem

The lower house, known as the Wolesi Jirga, or House of the People, is a legislative body with significant oversight and powers whose formation was delayed by thousands of fraud complaints. Its final composition was only determined on December 1.

The Mishrano Jirga, or House of Elders, is more of a talking shop comprising 102 members, 34 of whom are appointed by the president and 68 of whom are chosen from among Afghanistan's 34 provincial councils.

Abdul Satar Saadat, a Kabul-based legal affairs analyst, says the September elections were clearly flawed from a legal standpoint because insecurity disenfranchised a large number of Afghans.

In an effort to address the outcry -- highlighted by arrests related to election fraud made by the Attorney General's Office and a petition by Attorney-General Muhammad Ishaq Alako for the results of the election to be annulled -- the Afghan Supreme Court this week forwarded a proposal for Karzai to set up a special tribunal to deliberate on complaints related to the election.

Saadat says the country's Election Commission should have created conditions to ensure the final results were also acceptable to most losing candidates. He says the Karzai administration had a testy relationship with the outgoing lower house, which rejected many of his cabinet nominees and some of whose members were accused of soliciting bribes from officials in return for smooth oversight procedures. He says the makeup of the new legislature could prove to be a constant headache for the Karzai administration.

"According to the information we have, even before this new parliament is inaugurated, members have plans to target the president," Saadat says. "Some members are gathering materials to accuse the president of national subversion and [of failing to properly perform his duties]. This way they want to harm his standing domestically and internationally. This would eventually result in a clash between the legislature and the government, and the people of Afghanistan would eventually have to pay for it."

Daoud Sultanzoy, who lost his reelection bid in September polls, is now actively protesting the vote results. He calls the figures a "coup" against Karzai by warlords, which will give them the upper hand in the coalition administration he heads. He doesn't envisage the Afghan government or the Supreme Court overturning the results.

Sultanzoy, a Pashtun, represented the central Ghazni Province in the outgoing parliament. Insecurity prevented Pashtun voters in Ghazni from participating in the polls and all 11 parliamentarians are members of the province's minority Hazara population.

Old Wounds

Sultanzoy says the new parliament could fan political flames in the country because so many of its members are purportedly loyal to warlord factions. He says the lawmakers are in a position to create considerable roadblocks for the president, who could be forced to make continuous concessions on key domestic- and foreign-policy issues as a result.

"Those who will be calling and carrying certain blocs of votes would be bartering with the president in the shape of new cabinets [and] that new cabinet would also be influential in civil-service system of the country and the reforms that the civil-service needs," Sultanzoy says. "Therefore, the appointments and the results of those appointments would be seen in the years to come."

Fawzia Koofi, a reelected legislator from the northwestern Badakhashn Province, acknowledges that there were fraud and irregularities, and that low turnout disenfranchised voters in insecure provinces. But overall, she says, the parliamentary polls were no worse than the 2009 disputed presidential election.

She says that the more than 2, 200 candidates who lost in the September parliamentary elections are now clamoring to question the outcome, and some have even pushed for annulling results.

Koofi says that Karzai government has to be careful in establishing a working relationship with the parliament.

"If the government takes the parliament seriously, and if the government presents the programs and the policies based on the needs of people, I don't think any parliamentarian who is representing their constituents would go against the government for no reason," Koofi says. "It is in the government's hands to make a systematic relationship with the parliament."

Members of outgoing parliaments included members of anti-Soviet mujahedin factions, which appealed to ethnic political blocs, Islamists, former Communists, tribal leaders, and some civil-society activists. Although the incoming parliament is seen to be dominated by members loyal to certain key warlords, observers say it is difficult to predict their future course, as many of them might opt to break from their past patronage networks and carve out independent deals with the presidential palace.

But the mood among Kabul's intelligentsia is not upbeat. Lawyer Saadat compares the parliamentary elections to the April 1992 victory of anti-Soviet mujahedin factions. After the fall of Mohammad Najibullah, the country's last socialist president, the victorious guerrillas plunged Afghanistan into a fratricidal civil war that killed hundreds of thousands and forced millions to flee.

"This crisis can turn into a tragedy," Saadat warns, "and it completely undermines the confidence in democracy."

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