THE failure of the newly elected Afghan Wolesi Jirga — the country’s national assembly — to elect a speaker of the house in more than seven rounds of voting indicates the deep-rooted troubles facing the government and parliament.
The political stalemate started on Jan 28 when the first formal session of the parliament was convened to elect a speaker of the house as per constitutional requirements four months after nationwide elections last September.
The overly assertive postures adopted by each ethnic group for attaining more power and influence in the new parliament have led to the failure to elect more than 20 candidates that have so far participated in contests for speakership in different rounds of voting.
From the time it was elected to when it was formally inaugurated, the current Wolesi Jirga has surmounted multiple challenges ranging from election delays, fraud, rigging and the denial of voting opportunities in the south and south-east of the country to the disqualification of victorious candidates by the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan.
So far, amongst the people who have failed to muster the support of the mandatory 50-plus-one (51 per cent) of the 249-member assembly are the head of that Itihadi Islami Ustad Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, former speaker and education minister Yunus Qanooni, ex-presidential candidate Mirwais Yaseeni and Haji Zahir Qadeer.
Interestingly, in each round voting for the speaker, a good number of the house members have either been absent or have stuffed the box with blank ballot papers, which the Afghans called spinney raiy (white votes).
In the first round of elections on Jan 28, in a contest between Rasool Sayyaf and Yunus Qanooni, 27 MPs’ votes were polled blank. The number of these blank votes cast by MPs reached 92 in the third round of voting, then represented close to 40 per cent of the votes of the 240 MPs attendant in the speaker’s election.
Since Jan 28, in all the rounds of voting held so far, Ustad Rasool Sayyaf remained the person for whom the highest number of votes was cast, getting 119 — three votes short of the required number of 122. Sayyaf is closely followed by the outgoing speaker, Yunus Qanooni, with 116 votes. Sayyaf, who has the backing of the Karzai administration, is a veteran of Afghan jihad and was the first jihadi commander to invite Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan when the Al Qaeda chief was expelled from Sudan in 1996 following mounting American pressure.
To resolve the prevailing political stalemate, the Karzai government floated the idea of changing the procedure with consensus and electing the speaker of the house on majority votes instead of the mandatory 51 per cent of the members present in the house. However, a large number of parliamentarians rejected this proposal and preferred to hold elections according to the rules and procedures laid down in the constitution.
Political observers believed that by sticking to the rules, lawmakers succeeded in thwarting the government’s move to pave the way for the election of Ustad Rasul Sayyaf as the speaker of the house. In the lawmakers’ view, doubts about President Hamid Karzai’s intentions were created when he reluctantly administered oaths to new parliamentarians on Jan 26 after the intervention of the country’s Supreme Court and pressure from the international community. In his inaugural address to the new parliament, President Karzai severely criticised the international community for meddling in Afghanistan’s elections affairs.
Confirmed reports also suggested that prior to agreeing to swear in the new parliament, President Karzai took undertakings from each of the elected members that they would vacate their positions in the event of disqualification by the Special Election Tribunal. The Special Election Tribunal, constituted by President Karzai in December, is already seized with hundreds of cases of allegation regarding fraud and rigging in the Sept 18 elections. The final decision by the tribunal on these allegations is expected in two weeks’ time.
The majority of the lawmakers have challenged the role of the Special Election Tribunal, accusing the Karzai administration of influencing election results. They see the tribunal as illegal and believe that the only constitutional forum for investigating electoral irregularities is the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan.
The going appears tough for the current parliament. This situation is providing fodder for those demanding the dissolution of parliament on grounds of massive electoral fraud. Before swearing in the new parliament, President Karzai resisted a great deal of pressure from ethnic Pashtuns demanding the declaration of the elections as null and void.
Ethnic Pashtuns believe that the majority of the areas in south and south-east, where they are in the majority, remained uncontested due to the poor security situation and the threats levelled by the Taliban.
They were further angered when a number of successful Pashtun candidates were disqualified by the UN-backed Election Complaints Commission on technical and fraud grounds. A total of 1.3 million votes were scrapped as being invalid, leading to the disqualification of 24 early winners.
Ghazni, where out of total of 18 districts 12 are Pashtun-dominated, is viewed as an example where the Independent Election Commission declared 11 ethnic Hazaras as winners, disqualifying Pashtuns candidates on technical grounds. This situation reduced the number of Pashtun MPs to 95 from 112 in the preceding parliament.
Several Afghan commentators believe that the Pashtuns’ lack of interest in the Wolesi Jirga is the fundamental reason behind the current political stalemate and that it is going to obstruct the parliament’s functioning, particularly in matters related to constitutional issues.
The fissures in parliament will become more conspicuous once the government presents the names of new cabinet members for confirmation. President Karzai is going to put forward some 13 ministers for confirmation. Likewise, there are several vacancies in the senior judiciary and fresh names will be presented to parliament for confirmation. It is mandatory for the government to seek parliamentary confirmation for the appointment of ministers and judges for the senior judiciary.
The writer is director, news and current affairs, Khyber Television.