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Next Up: Parliamentary Elections

Despite the success of the recent presidential vote, some observers wonder whether the country is ready for the general election scheduled for the spring.
By Hafizullah Gardesh

Following the country's recent presidential elections, political observers in Afghanistan are now looking ahead to parliamentary elections in the spring.

That is, if they happen at all. Some analysts say it might be better to postpone the vote if it becomes clear that the government cannot guarantee security. Others, however, insist that the elections should be held on time.

Elections are to be held either in April or May - the precise timing has yet to be determined by the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body. Each province will have a different number of seats, based on its population. All told, Afghanistan's national assembly will have 249 elected members.

Afghanistan's October 9 presidential vote was not marred by major violence.

However, analysts say holding parliamentary elections is likely to be much more challenging than the presidential election. One major obstacle is the slow pace of disarmament: there are some areas that are still under the sway of local militias, and some observers fear that truly representative figures will not find their way into the national assembly.

Habibullah Rafih, a political analyst and member of Afghanistan's academy of sciences, sees trouble ahead.

"In my opinion, if the parliamentary election is held while arms are still uncollected, then… the results will be painful," he said.

However, Rafih added, . that it is the government's constitutional obligation to hold parliamentary elections. Postponement of the election, he said, would be seen as a failure for the government and might undermine the legitimacy of the new administration of president-elect Hamed Karzai.

"Laying the proper groundwork for successful parliamentary elections is the government's obligation," he said. "And it is the government's responsibility to hold the elections on time."

Another political analyst, Mohammad Qasim Akhgar, takes a different view. If the conditions are not right, he argues, it would be better to postpone the election.

"If the situation [during the elections] is the same as it is right now, a truly representative parliament will not come into existence," he said.

Even if circumstances for the election are ideal, Akhgar added, the outcome of the election will be influenced by both national and international players.

Those who fail to win posts in the new administration currently being formed by Karzai may try to hold on to their power via the parliamentary election. And there is a risk, he added, that armed groups and local drug barons might try to gain legitimacy through the electoral process.

"If warlords, terrorist groups and narcotics traffickers win seats in parliament, the situation will become too dangerous, and democratisation of Afghanistan will be pushed back for a long time," warned Akhgar.

Mohammad Younis Qanuni, an important political player who came second in the presidential election, insisted that the Karzai government - not militia commanders - are the main threat to the upcoming elections.

"Sabotage, fraud and whatever else happens are all the responsibility of the government, not the warlords," he said.

Qanuni, who drew strong support from some former mujahedin, said the election must be held on time. And he said the parliamentary vote would serve as a referendum on the government's policies.

"The issue at stake will be whether the government is on the right track and whether it really is implementing the national constitution," he said.

The hope is that through the elections process, real political parties will begin to take shape. Some observers worry, however, that militia groups or their proxies will take many of the seats.

Sebghatullah Sanjar, head of the Republican Party, supported Karzai in the presidential election and is now preparing his party for the election.

"If a parliament is formed… on the basis of the narrow interests of a few individuals and groups, it is better not to have it," he said.

Security is not the only issue. Afghanistan has not had a proper census in decades, and some observers are questioning whether there will be true proportional representation.

Mohammad Seddiq Patman, a political analyst who helped draft Afghanistan's constitution, thinks full disarmament and a proper census are two measures that must be implemented prior to the parliamentary election.

"Parliamentary seats are supposed to be distributed according to the size of the provinces' populations," he said. "If we don't have precise statistics on that, then there will be trouble. If a census is not taken, the new parliament will be decided by force, rather than by the people."

Patman said the elections are a vital chance to end the "politics of making excuses" for past crimes. Noting that powerful commanders alleged to have been responsible for atrocities had been able to run for president, he expressed concern that the same individuals might also try to win parliamentary seats in order to keep their cases closed to public scrutiny.

Another political analyst, who asked not to be named, worried that Karzai would bring powerful figures into his government, and their allies would then take seats in parliament.

"I am pretty sure that some notorious figures will occupy some of the cabinet posts, and their representatives will find their way into parliament, and they will tie Karzai's hands," he said.

Despite those fears, there is hope for positive developments. Women will be guaranteed seats in the national assembly. Two female representatives will be sent from each province, with a total of 68 female representatives.

Akhgar speculated that some women would be directly elected to parliament in major cities. In other areas, he said, they would probably be appointed rather than elected to their seats.

Intriguingly, the parliamentary elections may also be an avenue for some factions of the Taleban to lay down their arms and become part of the political process.

According to recent reports, there have been contacts between the government and representatives of some factions of the fundamentalist movement.

At present, the Taleban are still openly at war with the Afghan government and its foreign allies. It is not clear whether Taleban elements will join in the parliamentary election, or participate in government through some other means.

Most analysts agreed that Taleban members who are not accused of war crimes and who accept Afghanistan’s current constitution should be given the right to participate in the election.

Patman, for one, was hopeful that the Taleban might somehow join the government.

"If the people of Afghanistan can forgive Russian sympathisers and the Soviet occupation, and they can forgive war criminals as well, they can also forgive the Taleban," he said.

"Everyone has the right to take part in government and political life, provided they obey the constitution of Afghanistan and work for democracy. Because issues cannot be resolved by war. Blood cannot be washed out by blood."

Hafizullah Gardesh is a staff reporter with IWPR in Kabul.

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