News / Asia

Afghan Parliament Still Finding Its Voice in the Midst of an Insurgency

Gary Thomas

The parliament of Afghanistan, for which voters cast their ballots Saturday, is a product of the international conference that laid out the foundations for a new post-Taliban system. Nine years after that conference in Bonn, Germany, the Afghan parliament is still very much a work in progress.

Under the outline of the Bonn Agreement, the Afghan parliament is designed to be a co-equal in the triad of a new democratic government, along with executive and judicial branches.  But U.S. Army War College professor Larry Goodson says most power still rests with President Hamid Karzai.

"I do think that parliament is beginning to develop, as an institution, some ability to push back against the executive, but it's still very much a weak sister.  I still think it's very much an executive-dominated political system," he said.

In January, parliament did push back by refusing to ratify 17 of President Karzai's ministerial appointments.  Former European Union Special Representative to Afghanistan Francesc Vendrell says the president is hoping to get a more friendly legislature this time around. "Some people think that President Karzai will manage through fraud to obtain a pliant parliament.  I suspect he would like to get a more pliant parliament than he has now.  But it's not going to be as easy as all that," he said.

The reason that may prove difficult, say analysts, is because there are no organized political parties in Afghanistan that field slates of candidates in multiple constituencies.  There are some parties, but they are primarily vehicles for a single individual.  So there is no party discipline allowing the president to corral votes.

Instead, says Larry Goodson, political alliances are made not along party lines but ethnic ones. "Parliament has proven to be a place where Tajik and Uzbek and Hazara and other folks that don't come from Karzai's Pashtun ethnic group can oppose things and gain credit with their ethnic supporters, that they're opposing things that Karzai, a Pashtun, is pushing forward," he said.

Francesc Vendrell says parliament is still finding its voice in the midst of an insurgency. "I think it was far from being a perfect parliament, and a lot of money was being exchanged to buy votes by one faction or another one.  But, it was the beginnings.  And I still think that they deserve support," said Vendrell.

Vendrell, who participated in the 2001 Bonn Conference and still talks with many diplomats, believes that many Western countries do not to consider the parliamentary polls all that important.

"Western governments do not care whether these elections are fair or not.  They have already given up on the idea that Afghanistan should have credible elections.  And since they are this time for parliament and not for the presidency, I don't think that you have too many governments - at least in the West and I suppose elsewhere - looking too carefully as to how these elections are conducted," he said.

But the Army War College's Larry Goodson says that if they don't, they should. "It's critical for U.S. strategy because the U.S. strategy is based on producing a better, more legitimate government that it can begin to more effectively turn things over to in preparation for the withdrawal that has been planned and announced starting in the summer of next year," he said.

The U.S. and its allies have criticized the Karzai government for corruption, which, analysts say, has damaged the president's credibility.  And the last parliamentary elections in 2005 and last year's presidential election that gave President Karzai a second term were both marred by charges of widespread electoral fraud.

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