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Afghanistan: New Parliament Must Cope With Deep Divisions

Kabul's Darul-Aman Palace will someday house the country's legislature (epa) With the certification of the results of the 18 September voting for the Afghan National Assembly's People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) and provincial councils last week, Afghanistan came one step closer to having its first parliament in place since 1965. Most of Afghanistan's 34 provincial councils have completed their local elections to appoint members for the National Assembly's Council of Elders (Meshrano Jirga), paving the way for the opening of the National Assembly on the target date of 18 December.

Despite the more than 70 officially registered political parties in Afghanistan, the vast majority of the candidates for the Wolesi Jirga and provincial council seats ran as independents. Nonetheless, many of the new lawmakers are affiliated with political parties and there are political coalitions, although most are based on short-term political expediencies and have no clearly stated joint policy goals.

No Clear-Cut Map

No clear-cut political map of the new National Assembly can be drawn. This factor, plus the personality-based nature of Afghan politics and the history of radical shifts of alliances among Afghan political figures in the past, has caused some commentators and news writers in recent days to claim that the future parliament would be support Afghan President Hamid Karzai, while others have predicted that the National Assembly will be dominated by conservative mujahedin leaders.

Both of the above assessments could be true, but the first postulate is subject to change.

The 249 members of the Wolesi Jirga can be divided into four broad and often overlapping camps: first, former mujahedin, including the 40 or so members of Hizb-e Islami who have distanced themselves from their party leader and current antigovernment fugitive Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; second, independents, technocrats and those tribal leaders who are not affiliated with other parties; third, former communists and other leftists (ironically some of the former communists abandoned their mustaches --symbol of Afghan communists -- in favor of beards and joined mujahedin parties and even allied themselves with the Taliban, so there can be some overlap between this group and groups one and four); and fourth, former members of the Taliban establishment. Since a large number of Taliban leadership had previous association to the mujahedin parties, this last group could overlap with the first group.

A Weighty Agenda

In the absence of official political party lists in the Afghan parliament and because of the fluidity of the Afghan political loyalties it is very difficult, if not impossible, to gauge how the National Assembly will act before they convene. Their immediate agenda, however, includes retroactive action on many of Karzai's decrees, his cabinet nominations, and his choices for the Supreme Court.

The best assessment is that at the outset, the mujahedin and their affiliates will enjoy a majority. This however does not necessarily mean that the parliament in Afghanistan would have a majority bloc pushing for specific agendas as the mujahedin, almost from the beginning of the struggle in 1978, have been and remain hopelessly divided.

Among the mujahedin, a number of the more prominent figures -- such as Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf and possibly leader of the Jami'at-e Islami (Islamic Society) party and president of Afghanistan in the 1990s Burhanuddin Rabbani -- are currently in Karzai's camp. Most of the members of Hizb-e Islami and former Taliban members, lacking any strong leadership, being mostly Pashtuns, and having to deal with the stigma of past association with Hekmatyar or the neo-Taliban, are mostly likely to back Karzai for now. Karzai seems to enjoy strong support among the technocrats and women, most of whom belong to the second grouping mentioned above. The tribal leaders should be expected to stick on ethnic lines and perhaps more than any other group be sensitive to the interests of their constituencies.

Rough Sailing Ahead

In this unscientific calculation the Wolesi Jirga, Karzai fares well at the outset, but he must navigate very dangerous currents. Some of his allies among the mujahedin may push for reinserting religion -- their prerogative --into the politics of the country. The technocrats, women, and the leftist camp may try to liberalize the society, which in turn would push the mujahedin closer together. Many elected members of the Wolesi Jirga have fought in opposing groups and have committed atrocities that still haunt the Afghan people. Whether the past bloody memories can be forgotten is another test for the new parliament. As a related issue, Karzai would be placed in a compromising position if, as expected, some members of the Wolesi Jirga who have voiced concern about the crimes committed against the Afghans by some of their colleagues, try to debate past human rights abuses.

Afghanistan Votes

Afghanistan Votes

RFE/RL's complete coverage of the historic September 18, 2005, legislative elections in Afghanistan.