Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghans Disillusioned with Candidate Choice

Most current parliamentarians plan to stand again, despite widespread public mistrust and disappointment.
By Hafiz Ahmad Amir Khil
  • Many legislators stand accused of pursuing personal or factional interests while delivering precious little to their constituents. (Photo: USAID)
    Many legislators stand accused of pursuing personal or factional interests while delivering precious little to their constituents. (Photo: USAID)

Public confidence in Afghanistan’s parliamentary system appears lower than ever as an election looms in September. 

The lack of enthusiasm does not bode well for voter participation, given that turnout in the last ballot, held in 2005, was just 50 per cent.

The election to the 249-member lower house of parliament – the second since the fall of the Taleban government in 2001 – will take place on September 18, with 2,600 candidates registered to take part.

Under Afghanistan’s electoral system, candidates stand as independents rather than party members, with each province allotted a number of representatives proportionate to its population.

Most current members of parliament are standing for election again. But many voters say they now regret having backed these politicians in the 2005 ballot, as they spent their time in office making money and engaging in pointless debate while failing to deliver anything to their constituents.

Shah Mohammad, a voter in Kandahar in the south of the country, said legislators forgot about their electorate once they acquired power.

“We were wrong to vote for those members of parliament. Security is deteriorating in Kandahar, civilians are being killed by foreign bombardments, people are getting poorer day after day, and no development work has been implemented,” he said. “But our members of parliament are just lining their pockets. Their mouths are taped shut with dollar bills, and they cannot articulate the people’s views.”

Khaled Pashtun, a Kandahar lawmaker, said he realised people were unhappy with their elected representatives, but he blamed security conditions for the lack of contact.

“Security in Kandahar is so bad that we cannot go out to the districts and meet people there,” he said.

He also accused the local executive in Kandahar of not supporting parliamentarians when they raised concerns.

“Despite that, we have partially resolved Kandahar’s electricity problems, and we have asked several times for incompetent local officials to be removed. We have talked about people’s problems, and it isn’t our fault if the government doesn’t heed our suggestions,” said Pashtun.

He said people should give their members of parliament another chance.

“We have gained a fair amount of experience over the last five years, and we’re able to manage our affairs better,” he said.

Jamil, a prospective voter in Nangarhar in the southeast Afghanistan, said he was not just dissatisfied with the performance accomplishments of the parliament members, but also blamed them for corruption and wrongdoing.

“I know members of parliament who didn’t have a single property in Nangarhar city before entering office, but now possess countless houses and land plots,” he said. “And at the same time, there is no electricity in Nangarhar, and people are unemployed and suffer under the unauthorised searches conducted by foreign troops.

“The authorities have got their teeth into the flesh and bones of the people, and these members of parliament have done nothing.”

Jamil said angrily that he would not be voting for anyone in September.

“This time, I will vote for neither old nor new candidates,” he said. “That way, if they commit any misdeed, my soul will be at rest since I won’t have voted for them.”

Safia Seddiqi, a member of parliament for Nangarhar, dismissed allegations that her colleagues were ineffective.

She said the Afghan parliament had passed dozens of laws, worked hard to supervise the government, and done its best to secure the release of prisoners held by the United States-led coalition.

“Now I am busy getting prisoners released from Bagram prison. So far, 17 prisoners from Nangarhar have been released under my guarantee,” she said.

Seddiqi said she was confident that people would vote to give her a second term.

“People think if new members come, they will do better, but actually that isn’t true,” she said.

The deputy speaker of the lower house, Amanullah Paiman, accepted that parliament was inexperienced when it started work in 2005 but said it had nevertheless accomplished a great deal.

“We have approved 58 laws, we have summoned various ministers to answer questions, and we have monitored the government’s activities,” he said.

Since the 2005 election there have been repeated allegations that parliament is packed with former militia commanders responsible for bloodshed in previous conflicts, and that the result has been to perpetuate political and ethnic divisions rather than build a cohesive, effective national institution.

Habibullah Rafi, a writer and political analyst, said that in a truly free and fair election, most of the sitting members would not win.

“Most of these members of parliament are not true representatives of the people; they entered the legislature by virtue of their power and only approved certain laws to award themselves immunity from possible trial and cover up their crimes,” he said.

He said legislators had used their time in office to further their own interests, so if they were re-elected, they would not start working for the public good.

Ramazan Bashardost, a member of the current parliament and an outspoken critic of the Afghan government, agrees with the harsh verdict people have passed on his colleagues.

“Most of members of parliament are uneducated. They have given preference to ethnic, sectarian, regional and language issues over the national interest. Some members were tied into political deals with the government, while others never attended meetings,” he said.

“They spent two years just discussing Pashto and Dari terminology. One group backed having a Pashto name for the university, while the other fought for the Dari equivalent. The people’s problems were forgotten.”

Bashardost says some of the laws passed by parliament were the opposite of what the Afghan people needed.

“The laws that illiterate members of parliament have passed are not for the benefit of the people; they are against their interests. For instance, the reconciliation bill which members approved provided legal immunity for those who killed people, looted people’s property and abused and dishonoured them. Was that for the benefit of the people?” he asked.

Bashardost was referring to a law which legislators passed in 2007 granting immunity from prosecution to combatants in past conflicts. President Hamed Karzai did not in fact sign off on the bill at the time because so many objections were raised by domestic and international rights groups, and its status remained unclear until March 2010, when the president’s office admitted that it had entered into force without his signature.

Sardar Mohammad Rahman-Oghli, a legislator from Faryab in the west of the country, agreed that public criticisms were largely justified, although he said voters should distinguish between good and bad elected politicians.

He said that if parliament had been able to function properly, it could have done a lot towards reducing poor governance, corruption, security problems and drug trafficking. But these same problems had undermined its work.

“Every day the security situation is getting worse, corruption is flourishing, and there is no justice, so parliament has been unable to respond to the people’s demands properly,” he said.

Hafiz Ahmad Amir Khil is an IWPR-trained journalist in Afghanistan.