Afghanistan's Absentee Politicians
Afghans have long complained about their elected representatives, but now there are voices in both parliament and government accusing some politicians of prolonged absence from work and other abuses.
Critics warn that cases of this kind undermine public confidence in the Afghan parliament and the already fragile democratic system.
The secretariat that manages the work of the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament, recently accused some elected members of continued absence from the chamber. As a result, it said, there were times when there were not enough members present to pass important pieces of legislation.
On April 7, the secretariat named 43 lawmakers who it said were absent in March without notifying it, Pajhwok news agency reported. The same number were absent throughout April, the Daily Outlook Afghanistan newspaper reported subsequently.
Abdul Sattar Khawasi, a legislator from Parwan province who was elected to head the secretariat in January, told IWPR that chronic absenteeism was a problem but that new measures would curb it.
“There are some individuals in parliament who have been absent for as much as a year, but have still received their full salaries and privileges,” he said.
As well as being named and shamed, lawmakers will also face fines for missing sessions.
“The administrative board will henceforth cut the salaries and privileges of absentee members,” Khawasi said.
Under new procedures, officials will consider suspending anyone absent for more than 20 days.
Other complaints against lawmakers include allegations that they misuse their status to obtain benefits for friends and relatives.
Abdul Majid Qarar, a spokesman for the Afghan agriculture ministry, claimed that lawmakers had pressured staff there to hand out jobs to their associates.
“As well as asking for plots of land, members of parliament also interfere in the ministry’s affairs and ask for friends and relatives to be appointed to key ministry positions,” he said. “Some of them even tell us to sack such-and-such a person and appoint a friend of theirs to that position.”
A higher education ministry official, on condition of anonymity, made similar claims.
“Members of parliament waste 50 per cent of our time,” he alleged. “They come with ten applications at a time – one of them asking for scholarships for his friends and family, another wanting his friend to be appointed.”
Some parliamentarians are prepared to speak out about abuses committed by their colleagues.
Gul Padshah Majidi, representing the southeast province of Paktia, said corruption in government had encouraged legislators to engage in similar practices.
“The Afghan government paved the way for corruption. This has led certain members of parliament to engage in corruption and abuses,” he said.
His colleague Sayed Hussein Alemi Balkhi, who represents a Kabul constituency, said abuse of power by some lawmakers had reached critical proportions, to the extent that parliament’s reputation and legitimacy were under threat.
Another concern voiced by members is that some of their colleagues employ – at state expense – many more bodyguards than the limit of four.
“Those who have large numbers of bodyguards have friends in the interior ministry who support them and their demands,” said one unhappy member, who did not want to be named.
Afghan media have named five who maintain armed retinues of between 20 and 40, all paid for by the interior ministry.
None of the five was prepared to be interviewed by IWPR.
Secretariat chief Khawasi acknowledged that he had nine bodyguards, five over the limit, arguing that it was justified because the area where he lived and his route to work were dangerous.
General Mohammad Zaher, head of the criminal investigations department with the Kabul police– which comes under the interior ministry – said efforts were under way to cut the numbers of bodyguards used by powerful figures in the city, to check what weapons and uniforms they had, and to ensure they did not harass or intimidate civilians.
“Kabul police headquarters wants to assign bodyguards to each individual according to what they need,” he said.
The interior ministry has banned other appurtenances of powers – vehicles with tinted windows and no licence plates, and weapons other than the Kalashnikov rifles that are legally issued to officials. (On the firearms issued to parliamentarians, see Disarming Afghan Politicians.)
Not all parliamentarians believe they need armed escorts.
Ramazan Bashardost, a consistent critic of the rich and powerful, said he had no guards, and could not understand why others needed them.
“If these members of parliament were elected by the people, why are they scared? It’s the people, not ten or 20 bodyguards, who should support them,” he said. “People don’t trust those individuals; there’s a large gulf between them and the public.”
On the streets of Kabul, 22-year-old street vendor Shamsoddin spoke for many when he expressed his disdain for elected politicians. Many of them, he said, were former warlords who were continuing to accumulate wealth, only now through their political positions rather than by force of arms.
“Becoming a member of parliament in this country is not about serving the people; it’s about enriching yourself,” he said.
Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained contributor in Kabul.