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The days ahead for Karzai

25 January, 2011

By Rahimullah Yusufzai


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Afghanistan’s newly-elected Wolesi Jirga (People’s Assembly) has yet to hold its inaugural session, but the lawmakers have already shown their power by defying President Hamid Karzai and refusing to accept his decision to delay the inauguration.

This is a pointer to the difficult days ahead for the beleaguered Afghan leader now in his tenth year in power. The previous assembly had also acted in defiance of President Karzai on a number of occasions and thrice rejected many of his nominees for the cabinet. The new Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament, would likely be even more assertive as a higher number of anti-Karzai lawmakers, particularly from the ethnic non-Pakhtun minorities, have been elected this time.

President Karzai had decided to postpone the inauguration of the Wolesi Jirga until Feb 22 on the request of a special tribunal set up by him to consider more than 400 cases of alleged electoral fraud in the parliamentary polls held on Sept 18. The assembly was to convene on Jan 23 after much delay caused by the slow vote-counting, allegations of fraud and protests by losing candidates, but the special tribunal judge Siddiqullah Haqiq wanted more time to complete the assigned work.

In the face of defiant lawmakers, who held an informal meeting at a hotel in Kabul with more than 200 of the 249 newly elected members in attendance, President Karzai had to back down and was now stated to be willing to attend the parliament’s inauguration. The lawmakers were threatening to go ahead with the inaugural session without the president, though there was disagreement among constitutional experts whether this would be legal.

The session could take place around Jan 26, though the president and the lawmakers were still negotiating to decide the fate of the special tribunal. Karzai wanted the lawmakers to give a written guarantee that they would accept the tribunal’s verdict and step aside if they lost their seats in recounts, or were disqualified on charges of rigging. The lawmakers, on the other hand, wanted Karzai to disband the special tribunal, arguing that it was illegal.

It is a tricky issue as the lawmakers could raise the issue of the tribunal’s legal status once parliament is convened. They would use their authority not only to claim parliamentary immunity, but even decide to scrap the special tribunal. The tribunal could face death or become inactive before completing its work, which in any case cannot be done in a month’s time, considering the fact that over 400 electoral fraud complaints need to be decided. This would also amount to a direct challenge to President Karzai, who had set up the special court in December in response to the large number of complaints from the defeated candidates and widespread protests in Kabul and in the provinces against rigging.

Already weak and under criticism even from his traditional Western backers, Karzai would be worried if parliament continued to question his powers and made it difficult for him to govern. In fact, the United States and some of its Western allies, and the United Nations, which has been overseeing the country’s progress on the path of an often dysfunctional democracy, had all expressed concern over President Karzai’s decision to delay the opening of the parliament’s inauguration and called for it to meet as quickly as possible.

The internal pressure exerted by almost all the newly elected lawmakers and then the external one heaped on him by the US and others was too much for Karzai to handle and predictably he had to buckle down. Having given way to his opponents once, he could retreat on other fronts as well in the coming days. Gone are the days when Karzai was the darling of the West and was allowed to get away with anything. The times have changed and one way of putting him under pressure and to greater scrutiny is to challenge him from the parliament’s platform. This surely would check misuse of powers by the president, but at the same time it would make it difficult for him to smoothly run the affairs of the government. There would likely be more chaos, which in any case has followed almost every Afghan election, presidential or parliamentary, due to charges of fraud.

One argument against the formation of the special tribunal was that the Independent Electoral Commission of Afghanistan and the Election Complaints Commission were the two legal bodies with authority to rule on results of the vote. It was argued that the Independent Electoral Commission had certified the election results at the end of November last year after throwing out more than a million ballots from around 3,000 polling stations because of suspected fraud.

In previous elections, the Election Complaints Commission had foreigners as members and was powerful enough to overturn results, but this is no longer the case. The lawmakers are particularly opposed to the special tribunal with vast powers as they believe it undermines parliament’s authority. The lawmakers appear to be willing to let Afghanistan’s Supreme Court investigate the electoral complaints, instead of the special tribunal.

However, the issues at the centre of the growing political crisis in Afghanistan are not as simple as it would seem. Apart from reflecting the tussle for authority between President Karzai and the opposition now beginning to come together on one platform in the new parliament, the issues at hand include the ethnic divisions that have arisen following the parliamentary election and the dispute over conducting the peace process with the armed opposition represented by the Taliban and former Mujahideen leader Gulbadin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami. Karzai is caught in the middle and is required to do a difficult balancing act.

Though Karzai’s own election as president for his second term was marred by charges of fraud, the trend of rigging and fraudulent polls continued in the parliamentary election last year. In the presence of 150,000 foreign forces that are seen by many Afghans as occupiers and with almost all of Afghanistan suffering from instability and violence, it would be expecting too much for Afghanistan to become a functional democracy able to hold free and fair elections.

There was certainly a massive vote fraud, otherwise around quarter of the five million votes cast in the parliamentary election would not have been thrown out by the election commission and 24 early winners in the polls would not have been disqualified. Afghanistan’s attorney general, Mohammad Ishaq Alako, not only declared the parliamentary election fraudulent and illegal but also called for a fresh election. The losers thus have a point when they protest the fraudulent vote, demand recount and present evidence to overturn the result.

The external pressure on Karzai to inaugurate the new parliament without waiting for the special tribunal has fuelled nationalist feelings, particularly among the Pakhtuns whose representation in the assembly has dropped to 88 from 112 in the previous assembly due to the low turnout in Pakhtun-populated areas following Taliban threats. The non-Pakhtuns managed to vote in larger numbers and won more seats. In particular, the Hazaras have won more representation in the assembly in proportion to their percentage of the population, at the expense of the Pakhtuns, in provinces with mixed population. One example is Ghazni, where all 13 seats went to Hazara candidates, despite the fact that it is a Pakhtun-majority province.

Karzai was hoping to have fresh polls in some of the districts where one or the other ethnic group wasn’t properly represented in a bid to maintain national unity, but it seems he won’t be able to do so. The Taliban, through their tactics of intimidation, forced Pakhtun voters to stay away and thus caused a crisis that is threatening to widen the gulf between President Karzai and parliament, and also fuel ethnic strife.

 

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