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

Parliament's Growing Pains

Afghan legislators have approved a new cabinet, although several questions remain.
By Hafizullah Gardesh
The boisterous confirmation process that kept many Afghans glued to their television screens for weeks ended last week with a vote that gave unconditional approval to 17 out of 25 cabinet ministers, rejected five and left three in limbo.

The exercise displayed both the best and the worst of Afghanistan’s new democracy –occasionally chaotic, often contentious, legally on shaky ground, against all the odds it somehow worked.

The April 20 vote was a long and laborious process in itself, consuming more than six hours. Few could question the transparency of the ballot – for all 25 candidates, each of the 244 votes cast was read aloud, shown to the television cameras, then counted in full view of deputies and viewers.

But the confirmation process was another matter. Public grandstanding amid rumours of private lobbying and backroom dealing showed that Afghanistan’s fledgling legislators are catching on very quickly to the rules of the game.

Every day for the more than two weeks that preceded the vote, two of the nominees selected by President Hamed Karzai were called to the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga. The minister for parliamentary affairs, Farooq Wardak, briefed the legislators on the candidate, who then delivered a brief statement about his or her achievements and plans. Then the floor was thrown open for questions from the 18 commission chairs.

One minister who had an especially tough grilling was the current Minister of Information and Culture Sayed Makhdum Raheen, nominated to head an enlarged ministry for information and youth.

He was under attack from two major groups in parliament - the hard-line fundamentalists, who took him to task for allowing private television stations to air “naked” Bollywood movies, and for clapping at the concert of a singer from Tajikistan, who scandalised Afghan audiences by moving in time to her music.

Raheen has also offended many Pashtuns by disregarding their language in official communications, pushing instead the Dari or Persian language favoured by non-Pashtuns.

Others accused him of corruption, of siphoning off aid money to build himself a house, and of smuggling historical artefacts out of the country.

Raheen tried to defend himself, calling all the charges baseless and saying there was a conspiracy against him. His efforts were futile - he was rejected, along with the ministers-designate for the economy, women’s affairs, transport, and commerce.

Mohammad Younus Qanuni, the speaker of parliament, often served as referee when the discussion got too heated.

“I will give double thanks to those esteemed members of parliament who ask short questions,” he joked one day.

But even Qanuni’s suave performance failed when faced with some of the more outspoken members, such as Ramazan Bashar Dost, the former planning minister, now a staunch foe of the Karzai government.

Bashar Dost questioned the whole confirmation process, saying the president had failed to comply with the constitutional requirement that the cabinet be named within 30 days of parliament’s first session. President Karzai submitted his list more than three months after parliament first convened in December 19.

“This indicates that some sort of deals were being made between the president and the parliament,” said an angry Bashar Dost. When his colleagues failed to support him, he stormed out and did not return to parliament for two weeks.

When he did come back, it was to stir up even more trouble, saying that several of the nominees were ineligible because they had dual citizenship.

Afghanistan’s constitution is ambiguous on this subject, stating in one paragraph that a nominee for a ministerial post “must only have citizenship of Afghanistan. Should a nominee… also hold citizenship of another country, the Wolesi Jirga shall have the right to confirm or reject his or her nomination”.

As Bashar Dost insisted that his colleagues must reject all those with dual citizenship, his remarks became so inflammatory that Qanuni cut off his microphone. Once again, Bashar Dost left the proceedings in protest.

The legislature did debate the issue for several hours, finally coming to the conclusion that they had the right to make a decision on a case-by-case basis. The consensus was that in general, ministers should hold only one passport.

In the midst of the very heated debate, a letter arrived from the ministry of parliamentary affairs announcing that five of the nominees had renounced their second citizenship. The proposed foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, failed to do so, and was given two months to decide what he wanted to do about his German passport. Spanta was later confirmed, foreign citizenship and all.

Bashar Dost was still fuming on the last day of confirmation proceedings, when he accused Qanuni - and other former leaders of the jihad or holy war against the Soviets - of stacking the decks in favour of their preferred candidates.

“None of the jihadi leaders, including Qanuni, were present at the last session of parliament,” he told Ariana Television. “They had gone to a separate session where the decisions were made. The voting process in the parliament was basically just for show.”

Many in Afghanistan are bitter that the jihadi leaders, who include some of Afghanistan’s warlords, seem to have gained the upper hand in parliament. Some ministers appeared to curry favour with the former militia commanders during their confirmation hearings, making frequent references to jihad and Islam.

This behaviour apparently irritated Malalai Joya, the young firebrand from Farah province who shot to stardom in 2003 when she openly criticised the warlords at the Constitutional Loya Jirga.

“Our commission has a question - why are the nominees emphasising jihad and Islam? All of us are Muslims and mujahedin,” she said.

Joya went on to blast mujahedin leaders who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca but continued committing murders and destruction after they returned.

“You are Muslims. You are mujahedin. But why are you getting angry when we talk about criminals?” she said, as the predominantly male parliament shouted her down.

The day of the final vote saw the legislators still engaged in vigorous debate over the educational records of the nominees: the constitution requires that senior government officials should have had a higher education. They agreed to proceed with the confirmation process, giving two weeks’ grace period for the confirmed ministers to produce valid education documents.

The issue that caused the greatest consternation was the fate of three candidates who failed to receive the 50 per cent plus one vote that parliament originally stated was required.

With 244 deputies voting, it was initially announced that 123 yes ballots would be enough to confirm a minister. But this was adjusted when some popular candidates failed to clear the barrier. For example, the popular minister of communications, Amirzai Sangin, received 120 votes for and 108 against, with 16 abstentions. The parliament originally ruled that they would discount abstentions and confirm anyone who got more positive than negative votes. Two others, Minister for Refugees Akbar Akbar and Urban Development Minister Yousuf Pashtun, found themselves in a similar position.

Deputies launched into several days of furious debate on the ministerial appointments, most of it broadcast live. Two parliamentarians squared off and had to be physically separated, while Qanuni made frequent use of his cut-off button.

By the middle of the week after the original vote, the legislature was no closer to an answer and remained deeply divided about how the issue was being decided - and suspicious that the leadership was making deals behind closed doors.

Observers were alternately bemused and angered by the process.

“The parliament is not qualified to make these decisions,” said political analyst Mohammad Hassan Wolesmal. “Some members have no education at all; they’re illiterate. Most of the ministers lied during their confirmation, but parliamentarians were not aware of that.”

Despite all the problems, the process went well for a first try, insist parliamentarians.

“There may have been some problems with the process, because this is a new experience for Afghanistan,” said Mohammad Arif Noorzai, the first deputy speaker of the Wolesi Jirga. “But all these problems will gradually be ironed out.”

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s local editor in Afghanistan. Amanullah Nasrat is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.

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