Afghanistan’s new parliament and yet another election (updated)
130 days after the parliamentary vote and 64 days after the final results, not to mention a fair deal of wrangling, the new Wolesi Jirga was inaugurated on Wednesday 26 January. The process had been long and full of hurdles and it is still not completely certain that it is over. As late as Saturday 29 January, Radio Azadi reported that while the winning and inaugurated candidates had convened inside the Parliament, the disappointed ones were also meeting, in front of the Supreme Court. In the meantime both Houses moved swiftly to elect their new leadership and while the Senate’s election proceeded without much problem (despite it not being fully constituted), the Wolesi Jirga yet again found itself caught in procedural comlexities. Fabrizio Foschini reports on the first days of the new Parliament (with contributions from Martine van Bijlert).
The long and eclectic speech made by President Karzai at the inauguration was more interesting than the one with which he opened in 2005 (which had been a long list of government achievements) and provided a fairly comprehensive overview of his main ambitions, concerns and gripes. It was also intentionally phrased to indicate a departure from the tensions and twists and turns of the last months, implicitly calling for a normalisation of the relationships between the executive and the legislative.
The very first session of the Lower House on Saturday was completely absorbed by the election of the Speaker of the House. It started with a short â€˜electoral campaignâ€™ and ended in a long voting process. The rumour mill had initially provided a fairly long list of potential candidates including, former speaker Yunus Qanuni and his most redoubtable opponent Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf (both from Kabul); former deputy speaker and 2009 presidential candidate Mirwais Yassini; son of slain Minister Haji Qadir and former police chief Haji Zaher Qadir (both from Nangarhar); former presidential candidate (in both 2004 and 2009) Abdul Latif Pedram, one of Afghanistanâ€™s most secular politicians with a leftist background and federalist ideas (Badakhshan); former editor of Payam-e Mujahed newspaper, and political commentator close to Shura-ye Nazar, Hafiz Mansur (Kabul); Abdullah campaigner Doctor Mehdi, originally a leftist intellectual, who rapidly switched positions to join Shura-ye Nazar during the jehad (Baghlan); and Baktash Siawosh, a young journalist and TV presenter (Kabul).
In the days leading up to the vote, several candidates of â€˜Northern Allianceâ€™ background â€“ or northern tout court â€“ seem to have rallied behind the candidacy of Qanuni, leaving only four candidates contesting the seat: Qanuni, Sayyaf, Yassini and Haji Zaher. Sayyaf was from the beginning seen as Karzaiâ€™s favourite, as was the case in 2005. MPs from Kandahar for instance, but possibly others as well, were said to have been summoned to the Palace on Friday for this reason. But like in the past it was not clear how strong Karzaiâ€™s campaign for Sayyaf would be or to which extent it would actually boost his candidacy and succeed in re-directing the votes of moderates and Karzai loyalists.
The first round of voting on Saturday was carried out in a cheerful mood, with candidates mocking their rivals and MPs enjoying the misspellings made by one of the secretaries (Haji Almas Zahed became Almaszadah, among universal laughter). After the elimination of Yassini and Zaher from the competition, with 44 and 34 votes respectively (Qanuni and Sayyaf received 88 and 77 votes), the tension became more palpable.
In the first round there were 245 MPs present, but Ramazan Bashardost left before the second round, waving the blank vote he had cast during the first round (four MPs were absent for health reasons or travel). The vote in the second round was strikingly similar to five years ago, when Qanuni beat Sayyaf with 123 votes against 119. This year Sayyaf equalled his then 119 votes, but Qanuni was unable to obtain more than 116. However, the fact that there were 8 blank votes and 1 invalid and that the rules stipulated that the victor needed to gather half plus one of all the votes of the MPs present â€“ in this case 123 out of 244 â€“ meant that this was a contest with no winner.
The relatively high amount of votes received by Sayyaf in the first round (77) surprised some, but not all, and some members of the rival camp, like Pedram, claimed they had foreseen this outcome. Although Sayyaf could be expected to attract the support of the Pashtuns at large in a direct confrontation with the â€˜Northern Allianceâ€™, he is not the typical â€˜all-catcherâ€™. His record as head of a radical mujaheddin party and one of the major actors in the civil war in Kabul makes him an unlikely recipient of votes from the more progressive MPs, women or members of the Hazara community (see also this McClatchy articleÂ here).
However, yesterdayâ€™s outcome clearly indicates that voting did not simply take place along ethnic and factional lines and that Sayyaf also received votes from women, moderates and Hazaras. (Fatima Nazari, for example, an outspoken and independent Hazara MP from Kabul, who was the chosen representative for Haji Zaher at the counting of the first round vote, may well have been voting for Sayyaf in the second round, as most of Haji Zaherâ€™s supporters seem to have done.) This should serve as a reminder that in Afghanistan’s intractable politics of negotiations and shifting alliances simple faultlines are insufficient to predict behaviour.
The discussions on how to proceed, now that neither of the two main candidates had received more than half of the votes, spilled over into Sundayâ€™s session and the matter was still not resolved at the end of it. Some â€“ including the former parliamentary group Khat-e Sevom (the Third Line) and, interestingly, Qanuni â€“ argued that new elections should be held with new candidates. Others said that the whole election cannot be held hostage to a handful of blank votes. They suggested that the rules be changed retroactively, allowing either the candidate with the most votes to win, as had been the case in the past, or the blank votes to be divided among the two candidates â€“ both of which would make Sayyaf the winner â€“ or that, alternatively, the Supreme Court be asked to come up with a ruling (even though its tenure, as argued by Bashardost, had expired). Another option, of course, would be for the two candidates to go for a third round, in a last attempt to receive sufficient votes (possibly suffering the humiliation of failing to do so again).
The procedural confusion and the opportunities this provides for ambiguity and negation is by now quite familiar, with discussions about the exact details of procedure held only after it is quite obvious who would benefit from which decision.
At the end of the day, MPs were sceptical about the possibility of a compromise between the two opponents. Especially Sayyaf was not expected to step down now that he has come so close to victory (apparently there had been a long meeting at the Intercontinental on Satuday night, where the supporters of Sayyaf refused every opening from the other side). However, new candidates are also already girding their waists for a possible next round. This may be welcome to several MPs who, although uncomfortable with Qanuniâ€™s perceived opposition to the President or what they see as the increased influence of a northern bloc, would also not feel very comfortable with a victory by Sayyaf (which probably explains the sudden increase in blank votes in the second round).
The discussions are set to continue tomorrow, but many observers expect the relevant deals to be made during the night.
UPDATE of 31.01.2011
Monday morning the announced vote in the Wolesi jirga did not take place. After a somewhat rough debate, it was decided by a show of hands to get out of the impasse by presenting a new set of candidates. Even Sayyaf agreed amiably to withdraw his candidacy and ‘to have new faces coming up’, suggesting that a couple of days be given to them to prepare their candidacies (the vote has in fact been postponed to Wednesday).
These new faces, although many of them are all but unknown, represent a departure even from the first batch of would-be candidates that eventually did not present themselves. In fact, not only these stepped in, but many others – women included – joined the competition. The candidates list includes among others Abdullatif Pedram; Hafiz Mansur; Doctor Mehdi; Baktash Siawosh; Shukria Barakzai (Kabul), a prominent member of the Khat-e Sevom group; Obaidullah Ramin (Baghlan), a former minister of Agriculture with links to Sayyaf; Sayyid Eshaq Gailani (Paktika), head of Nezhat-e Hambastegi-ye Melli (National Solidarity Movement Party) and member of a respected religious family; and Nader Khan Katawazi, a Karzai supporter from Paktika whose huge yellow turban is already a trademark. However, their number appears to be quite high to allow for a swift election to happen, and so far it seems that Wednesday vote will be more colourful than conclusive. In that case, the real match could start only after the failure of this debutants’ vote, and lead us back to the ‘old faces’ again.