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Analysis: Afghan Cabinet Vote A Key Test

Lawmakers in the People's Council (file photo) (AFP) The lower house of the Afghan parliament approved 20 of President Hamid Karzai's 25 cabinet nominees on April 20. The outcome illustrates that the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) can function as an effective democratic forum. It also suggests that -- for now -- Karzai supporters in the lower house outnumber detractors. But two rejections -- of the only female nominee and of the long-serving culture minister -- could hint at trouble to come.

The confirmations of three key nominees -- at the Defense (General Abdul Rahim Wardak), Foreign (Rangin Dadfar Spanta) and Finance (Anwar al-Haq Ahadi) ministries -- represent a significant achievement for President Karzai.

They also signal a clear defeat for the fractured opposition led by lower-house speaker and former presidential candidate Mohammad Yunos Qanuni.

Fundamental Differences

But Karzai's broader victory might bring unforeseen consequences in the longer term, as he appears to have received the backing of conservative religious elements in the National Assembly.

While not unified under any single party, lawmakers in this fundamentalist bloc tend to focus on issues related to religion -- as opposed to ethnicity, language, or national origin. Many regard themselves as part of a united front to guard and interpret Afghanistan's Islamic identity.

Legislators dismissed five of the president's choices -- including Women's Affairs nominee Soraya Rahim-Sobhrang and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin. The other rejections were Gol Husayn Ahmadi (Transport and Aviation), Mohammad Amin Farhang (Economy and Labor), and Mohammad Haidar Reza (Commerce and Industry).

Vote counts suggest Rahim-Sobhrang and Rahin met with Islamist hostility.

Women's Affairs

Rahim-Sobhrang was the only woman on Karzai's list of nominees. Karzai told RFE/RL in early April that he felt women were well represented in Afghan political life -- pointing specifically to the bicameral legislature, the National Assembly. As a result, he suggested, his cabinet was recruited "for practical reasons" and "not political reasons." Karzai claimed the "place of women in Afghanistan has been secured, and women have the support of the people."

It is true that more than one in four National Assembly members is a woman. But it is also true that -- with a few exceptions -- none of those women would have reached parliament without the constitutional quota for female representation.

Karzai is likely to nominate another woman to be the next women's affairs minister. But the voting on April 20 illustrated how the conservatives feel about the status of women in Afghan society.

Guardians Of Culture

The rejection of nominee and current Culture Minister Rahin was arguably a serious blow to the cause of individual rights and freedoms in Afghanistan. A cultural battle has raged in the country since the early post-Taliban period between Islamists -- led by Supreme Court Chief Justice Mawlawi Fazl Hadi Shinwari -- and Rahin's Culture Ministry over proper constraints on the media and cultural activities.

Karzai's choice to replace Rahin will say much about the future of Afghan culture. The committee in the lower house that oversees culture and media is solidly in the hands of conservatives, who are likely to push for a like-minded minister.

An 80-percent success rate -- including key ministries -- will probably have pleased Karzai and his administration. But the first major showdown between the country's young parliament and its powerful presidency is not over. Karzai said before the confirmation process that the legislature should be obliged to defend publicly its rejection of nominees.

Afghanistan would be well served by explanations from the People's Council as to why those five ministerial nominees were unacceptable. That is particularly the case with Rahim-Sobhrang and Rahin, two ministers who have worked with Karzai from the outset and have a record on which their rejections might be based.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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