Will the Karzai government fall apart?
14 September, 2010
By Rahimullah Yusufzai
For the second time after the removal of the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghans would vote on September 18 in the election for their country’s Wolesi Jirga, or national assembly. The parliamentary poll would not lead to any change in government, but the outcome could strengthen or weaken President Hamid Karzai. A parliament dominated by his opponents would restrict his authority and make it difficult for him to implement his decisions.
The number of registered voters is 17.5 million, but many may not vote due to insecurity or on account of disappointment with the performance of the outgoing parliament. In fact, the voters’ turnout could also drop as a result of the growing lack of trust in the Karzai government in particular and the politicians in general. The frustration with the country’s democratic institutions and the electoral system also increased when last year’s presidential election was marred by widespread fraud. Many Afghans would not have much incentive to vote again after 11 months in another major election, still unsure about the sanctity of the ballot and the transparency of the result.
In Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, there are 2,447 candidates contesting for the 249 seats in the lower house Wolesi Jirga, a Pashto word meaning people’s assembly. Several candidates were killed or injured in violence, mostly Taliban-sponsored, during the election campaign and 62 were disqualified by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission mostly for being former warlords charged with human rights abuses. Some of the biggest warlords, though, are part of the government and cannot be made accountable due to their political power and military muscle. In fact, most of the warlords have grabbed more power and money by siding with the US and Nato forces in the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Ten years after invading Afghanistan, the Americans and their Western allies have started realising that their opportunistic alliance with the warlords has tied their hands in going after drug-traffickers or tackling corruption and stabilising Afghanistan.
About 400 women are also contesting the election. The number of female candidates has increased as 328 contested the 2005 vote for parliament. It is certainly an improvement in the situation and would have been unthinkable during Taliban rule or even when the Afghan mujahideen were in power from 1992 to 1996. However, the greater female participation in the political process hasn’t brought any significant changes in the lives of women or reduced the crimes being committed against them in the strictly male-dominated Afghan society. Many Afghans would tell you their women enjoyed more rights during the rule of the Afghan communists from 1978 to 1992.
The parliament composed of the lower or upper house is party-less, though likeminded groups emerged after the previous election and at times voted in line with their collective interest. Former mujahideen leaders and warlords dominated the 2005 Wolesi Jirga and ensured that they weren’t censured or made accountable for wrongdoings during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupying forces or in the subsequent civil war fuelled by the tussle for power. A sizeable number of former communists and a few Taliban were also part of the parliament and so were Afghans living in exile in the West and returning to their homeland temporarily to enjoy power in the post-Taliban period. A divided, non-party parliament suited President Karzai though in the last couple of years the parliamentarians sensing the public mood became more assertive as they blocked appointment of ministers and criticised government policies.
Already facing a host of problems and fast losing the trust of his Western backers, President Karzai would find it dreadful to have a hostile parliament. He doesn’t have a political party and was never a typical warlord with lots of fighters. In fact, being a Pashtun belonging to the majority ethnic group and clever political and electoral alliances with warlords helped him win past elections and stay in power. The same warlords constitute his political base and he needs to keep them happy to continue receiving their support. He would be keen that candidates put up by these warlords and those seeking votes in his name win enough seats to deny a majority to his opponents. However, having a compliant parliament also means making compromises, which in turn would limit his capacity to improve governance, fight corruption and cut a political deal with the Taliban.
So bad has been the security situation in the run-up to the poll that many Afghans and some Afghan watchers suggested postponing the parliamentary election. They argued that holding election because it needs to be done in a particular month or season wasn’t the right thing to do if it could not bring to life a credible parliament or stabilise the conflict-hit country. In fact, a fraudulent election or one in which a large number of voters cannot vote due to insecurity could generate new controversies and create more serious disputes. Ethnic, linguistic, sectarian and regional disputes could erupt in Afghanistan, which is awash with weapons and money sent from abroad and has been at war for more than three decades.
Security concerns meant that candidates were unable to campaign freely, particularly in the southern, eastern, western and central provinces where Taliban maintain a strong presence. Lack of campaigning was one reason that popular involvement in the election process was poor and no major issues confronting Afghanistan could be debated. It also paved the way for the use of money and strong-arm methods to garner votes and win election. Add to it the flawed voters’ registration, the absence of political parties from the election and the presence of many warlords in the electoral contest and you have a poll that doesn’t inspire confidence and generate hope about the future of Afghanistan’s nascent democracy. Some electoral reforms necessitated by last year’s fraud in presidential elections were undertaken, but these weren’t enough to ensure free, fair and transparent polls. There was also too much foreign interference in previous elections and there is no guarantee the US and other Western powers with high stakes in Afghanistan would not intervene this time to facilitate the victory of candidates close to them or to ensure defeat of others.
The Taliban have declared they will disrupt the poll, though they weren’t able to stop previous elections. However, Taliban threats would ensure a low turnout. Already, the government and electoral commission authorities have announced that 938 polling centres, mostly in southern and eastern Afghanistan, out of the total 6,835 would not open on September 18 due to insecurity. This means denying the right to vote to many Afghans because the Karzai government, the 150,000 US-led foreign forces, the more than 100,000 private security contractors and almost 250,000 Afghan army and police cannot guarantee security to the voters. Part of the country is thus effectively beyond the control of the government and the Nato-led security forces. This wasn’t the case in the 2005 vote for parliament or even in the August 2009 presidential election. There could be no better indicator of the worsening security situation in Afghanistan than the admission of the government that it is too dangerous to hold election in a part of the country. This is despite the fact that the US and its Nato allies during recent months have sent more troops, weapons and other resources to fight the Taliban and their military commanders are still raising false hopes about reversing the Taliban momentum in the war.
Lack of credible assembly election or the coming into being of a parliament that is hostile to President Karzai would also affect the future plans of the US-led Nato forces for Afghanistan. President Obama’s strategy of withdrawing some US troops from Afghanistan by next July is dependent on handing over security to the Afghan government at least in parts of the country and denying space to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This won’t happen if the Karzai-led coalition of former mujahideen and communists and pro-West elements painstakingly built and maintained by Western powers over the past 10 years was to fall apart as a result of a flawed election.