Political Landscape

Willing, able and Uzbek: the Wolesi Jirga looks for a minority speaker


Yesterday’s parliament session did not just add to an already long list of failures to solve the impasse over the speaker’s election, it additionally cast a gloomy communitarian shadow on the Lower House. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini reports about the (non)outcome of a parliamentary morning abruptly ended by an ethnically-polarized, politically-motivated strife.

It had not started so bad. The special commission set up by the parliament’s lower house last week to find a political solution – that is, to present an acceptable candidate speaker to overcome the Qanuni-Sayyaf stalemate – had not defined its positions much during the last two days, but it was clear that the MPs would have to put in some serious effort to resolve the situation (on Monday they had given up after barely an hour’s discussion, giving more time for the commission to debate separately).

Efforts were made, indeed, but in the worst possible direction. The commission reported to the assembly the outcomes of its meetings and the conversation it had with Qanuni and Sayyaf. Qanuni had accepted the idea of a third candidate, who, to avoid any polarization between Pashtuns and Tajiks, should come from a minority community. The possibility of a Hazara being also excluded, it was proposed that the candidate should be from the Uzbek community of Afghanistan.

As for Sayyaf, the head of the special commission Muhammad Mohaqqeq reported that he had continued to insist that the matter should be referred to an external body, namely the Commission for the Oversight of the Implementation of the Constitution. Sayyaf himself, however, argued in the session that, after the very first vote, he had accepted the idea of ‘new faces’. In fact, he added, he and his group had fully supported other candidates in all the vote sessions, never resorting to blank votes, implying that ‘his’ candidates had always been leading, and in the case of Sediq Ahmad Osmani (see our other blog here) even came very close to victory. He said he had done everything for the sake of escaping the impasse, and that he was ever ready to accept a new candidate, provided the commission was able to come up with a name(*).

Mohaqqeq’s announcement that the impasse was over, since Qanuni and Sayyaf had accepted the need to have a third, different, Uzbek candidate, was challenged by several MPs. Both MPs considered close to Sayaf and to Qanuni engaged in a contestation by raising their red cards for long minutes. The ensuing chaos succeeded in disturbing the interim speaker quite thoroughly, while he was trying to ascertain the will of the assembly to vote on the other two proposals of the commission: to change the internal rules of the parliament (simple majority required for election), and/or to refer the matter to the Commission for the Oversight of the Implementation of the Constitution. The senior speaker started shouting that he was nobody’s slave and that he was also an MP. He pleaded with his colleagues not to close their eyes and shame the parliament in front of the Afghan people and the world by first appointing a commission and then rejecting its proposals. All to no avail.

Sayyaf’s supporters were arguing that, as the commission had failed to select a name during the last three days, it was now time to turn to something else to effect the election. Qanuni on the other side seemed more supportive of the commission’s idea. Farhad Azimi, an MP from Balkh, asked permission to give a speech in Uzbek, for, though not being one himself, he possessed some proficiency in that language. The few MPs that could follow his address reported later that he conceded that he would be glad to vote for an Uzbek speaker, but that unfortunately among the Uzbek MPs a suitably competent person was not to be found. After that, the least an Uzbek could do was of course answer (in Dari) that although this was a big honour the WJ was doing to the Uzbek community, if one of them was to be elected it should be for his or her competence and ability, and not the ethnic origin. Apparently, the point made a good impression on some of Sayyaf’s supporters who reacted with applause, being also very happy to indirectly bash Azimi.

There was still time for Sediq Ahmad Osmani to protest his equal importance with Sayyaf and Qanuni, and to ask from the assembly to consider the will of all the strong contestants to the position in order to ensure a political solution, then the catastrophe happened.

Helmand’s MP Nasima Niazi took her turn to speak, and started arguing against the commission, in particular against its head Mohaqqeq, managing to insert a reference to those ‘who put nails in people’s heads during the civil war’. This had the obvious and probably calculated effect of a bombshell inside the assembly. The Hazara MPs left in protest and a brawl started around the speaker’s podium, involving the innocent interim secretary Nahid Ahmadi-Farid. Outside the hall, Nasima Niazi was attacked by former candidate speaker Huma Sultani as she was talking to the press. The session was suspended and did not restart at 1.30pm, as had been planned earlier.

As many catastrophes, this one looked possibly intentional. The session ended abruptly before it could start exploring which of the Uzbek MPs could be considered ‘competent’ enough to be accepted as a unitary candidate speaker. This means that no solution is in view until the next assembly on Saturday. Incidentally, just a few minutes before Niazi’s comments, Sayyaf had concluded his second address by advising the session to vote on the remaining proposals made by the commission or there would be no solution and the MPs would better go home – which he actually did right after, followed by Qanuni. Experienced politicians as they are, they can probably sense the storm before it starts raining. But it is also quite possible that one of them, in this case the wizard-looking Sayyaf, had actually called for the storm to gather.

The whole idea of putting ethnic considerations in the forefront appeared flawed from the beginning. You cannot really pretend that this is the main problem the Wolesi Jirga faces, or that it is the reason for its prolonged failure to elect a speaker and start functioning. Political tensions, economic offers and the ‘hidden hand’ of the government feature much more prominently in the impasse. Also, it does not seem a wise idea to start allocating the institutional positions ethnically. Afghanistan is clearly not Switzerland, but it also does not resemble Lebanon much – without discussing the latter’s suitability as a model. In any case, the ethnic tensions showed that they are there, immediately under the surface, always ready to be exploited.

The comments made during the sessions by a representative from Ghazni are maybe the best way to sum up the day at the Wolesi Jirga: ‘the parliament, with its behaviour, is actually proving that the lack of trust the Afghans reportedly feel towards it, is quite correct.’

(*) Sayyaf also strongly rejected the idea that there were pro and anti-government candidates in the assembly – as this portrayal of the situation is something that played in favour of Qanuni during some of the past sessions.

Yesterday’s parliament session did not just add to an already long list of failures to solve the impasse over the speaker’s election, it additionally cast a gloomy communitarian shadow on the Lower House. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini reports about the (non)outcome of a parliamentary morning abruptly ended by an ethnically-polarized, politically-motivated strife.

It had not started so bad. The special commission set up by the parliament’s lower house last week to find a political solution – that is, to present an acceptable candidate speaker to overcome the Qanuni-Sayyaf stalemate – had not defined its positions much during the last two days, but it was clear that the MPs would have to put in some serious effort to resolve the situation (on Monday they had given up after barely an hour’s discussion, giving more time for the commission to debate separately).

Efforts were made, indeed, but in the worst possible direction. The commission reported to the assembly the outcomes of its meetings and the conversation it had with Qanuni and Sayyaf. Qanuni had accepted the idea of a third candidate, who, to avoid any polarization between Pashtuns and Tajiks, should come from a minority community. The possibility of a Hazara being also excluded, it was proposed that the candidate should be from the Uzbek community of Afghanistan.

As for Sayyaf, the head of the special commission Muhammad Mohaqqeq reported that he had continued to insist that the matter should be referred to an external body, namely the Commission for the Oversight of the Implementation of the Constitution. Sayyaf himself, however, argued in the session that, after the very first vote, he had accepted the idea of ‘new faces’. In fact, he added, he and his group had fully supported other candidates in all the vote sessions, never resorting to blank votes, implying that ‘his’ candidates had always been leading, and in the case of Sediq Ahmad Osmani (see our other blog here) even came very close to victory. He said he had done everything for the sake of escaping the impasse, and that he was ever ready to accept a new candidate, provided the commission was able to come up with a name(*).

Mohaqqeq’s announcement that the impasse was over, since Qanuni and Sayyaf had accepted the need to have a third, different, Uzbek candidate, was challenged by several MPs. Both MPs considered close to Sayaf and to Qanuni engaged in a contestation by raising their red cards for long minutes. The ensuing chaos succeeded in disturbing the interim speaker quite thoroughly, while he was trying to ascertain the will of the assembly to vote on the other two proposals of the commission: to change the internal rules of the parliament (simple majority required for election), and/or to refer the matter to the Commission for the Oversight of the Implementation of the Constitution. The senior speaker started shouting that he was nobody’s slave and that he was also an MP. He pleaded with his colleagues not to close their eyes and shame the parliament in front of the Afghan people and the world by first appointing a commission and then rejecting its proposals. All to no avail.

Sayyaf’s supporters were arguing that, as the commission had failed to select a name during the last three days, it was now time to turn to something else to effect the election. Qanuni on the other side seemed more supportive of the commission’s idea. Farhad Azimi, an MP from Balkh, asked permission to give a speech in Uzbek, for, though not being one himself, he possessed some proficiency in that language. The few MPs that could follow his address reported later that he conceded that he would be glad to vote for an Uzbek speaker, but that unfortunately among the Uzbek MPs a suitably competent person was not to be found. After that, the least an Uzbek could do was of course answer (in Dari) that although this was a big honour the WJ was doing to the Uzbek community, if one of them was to be elected it should be for his or her competence and ability, and not the ethnic origin. Apparently, the point made a good impression on some of Sayyaf’s supporters who reacted with applause, being also very happy to indirectly bash Azimi.

There was still time for Sediq Ahmad Osmani to protest his equal importance with Sayyaf and Qanuni, and to ask from the assembly to consider the will of all the strong contestants to the position in order to ensure a political solution, then the catastrophe happened.

Helmand’s MP Nasima Niazi took her turn to speak, and started arguing against the commission, in particular against its head Mohaqqeq, managing to insert a reference to those ‘who put nails in people’s heads during the civil war’. This had the obvious and probably calculated effect of a bombshell inside the assembly. The Hazara MPs left in protest and a brawl started around the speaker’s podium, involving the innocent interim secretary Nahid Ahmadi-Farid. Outside the hall, Nasima Niazi was attacked by former candidate speaker Huma Sultani as she was talking to the press. The session was suspended and did not restart at 1.30pm, as had been planned earlier.

As many catastrophes, this one looked possibly intentional. The session ended abruptly before it could start exploring which of the Uzbek MPs could be considered ‘competent’ enough to be accepted as a unitary candidate speaker. This means that no solution is in view until the next assembly on Saturday. Incidentally, just a few minutes before Niazi’s comments, Sayyaf had concluded his second address by advising the session to vote on the remaining proposals made by the commission or there would be no solution and the MPs would better go home – which he actually did right after, followed by Qanuni. Experienced politicians as they are, they can probably sense the storm before it starts raining. But it is also quite possible that one of them, in this case the wizard-looking Sayyaf, had actually called for the storm to gather.

The whole idea of putting ethnic considerations in the forefront appeared flawed from the beginning. You cannot really pretend that this is the main problem the Wolesi Jirga faces, or that it is the reason for its prolonged failure to elect a speaker and start functioning. Political tensions, economic offers and the ‘hidden hand’ of the government feature much more prominently in the impasse. Also, it does not seem a wise idea to start allocating the institutional positions ethnically. Afghanistan is clearly not Switzerland, but it also does not resemble Lebanon much – without discussing the latter’s suitability as a model. In any case, the ethnic tensions showed that they are there, immediately under the surface, always ready to be exploited.

The comments made during the sessions by a representative from Ghazni are maybe the best way to sum up the day at the Wolesi Jirga: ‘the parliament, with its behaviour, is actually proving that the lack of trust the Afghans reportedly feel towards it, is quite correct.’

(*) Sayyaf also strongly rejected the idea that there were pro and anti-government candidates in the assembly – as this portrayal of the situation is something that played in favour of Qanuni during some of the past sessions.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape