Political Landscape

104 Days Without a Government – and Counting: The national mood sours


Civil Society's symbolic cabinet. Photo courtesy of Khaama.

Civil Society's symbolic cabinet. Photo courtesy of Khaama.

More than three months after President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah were inaugurated, they have still not formed a government. That continuing lack of a cabinet has meant public confidence and patience – which, at the time of the inauguration, ran high – are now wearing thin. A civil society campaign has issued a mixed assessment of the new leadership’s 100-day performance, and media have raised criticism about the almost complete firing of Herat’s provincial administration. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig, Kate Clark and Obaid Ali have been looking at the alarm signs and possible reasons for the delay in forming a cabinet, as well as the scarcity of possible candidates’ names in the public.

The first people who went public with their anger were activists from a section of civil society who presented their own, symbolic cabinet on 5 January 2015 in Kabul. It featured ‘ordinary people,’ rather than actual potential ministers, and was also led by two people, in this case a man and a woman.

Evidence that they may have captured the national mood came in a survey, released on 6 January 2015 by the Tolo media corporation, together with a consulting firm, based on “2,448 randomly selected respondents, who included both men and women in all 34 provinces, reached by phone.” The poll concluded that the percentage of Afghans who are “very satisfied” with the national unity government has more than halved (from 59.9 to 27.5 per cent) within its first 100 days (30.5 per cent were still “moderately satisfied”). As with all surveys in Afghanistan, this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly as the media group was seen as sympathetic to what used to be the political opposition, ie the ‘Abdullah camp,’ during the election campaign and this may have been reflected in the wording it chose to report the survey, only referring to “Ghani’s performance.” In late December 2014, already, two senators urged the president and the CEO to step down due to their failure to form the cabinet.

The lack of a cabinet has been blamed for the economy nose-diving and for encouraging the Taleban – for example by former leader of a small left-wing party, now turned political analyst, Mia Gul Wasiq: “the delay has emboldened the enemy [ie the Taleban and other insurgents] to step up attacks, and undermined the legitimacy of the unity government because security has deteriorated and the economy is down.” See also comments in media reports here and here.

A small group of parliamentarians has even accused president Ghani of ‘national treason’ for not having been able to present his cabinet to the house and for ignoring a one-week deadline, which parliament had earlier set him, threatening legal action against him. On 7 January, the group distributed a petition that initially had ten signatures (the names are here). On 8 January, they stood at 18 signatures, only two short of the 20 needed to submit it to the heads of the Wolesi Jirga’s 18 committees who, together with the speaker, the deputy speaker and other senior officials of the house’s administration, set the house’s agenda. The petition refers to article 69 of the constitution according to which the president can finally be dismissed from office. Article 69 stipulates that, with the signature of one third of the MPs, criminal charges can be levelled against the president. If two thirds of MPs confirm the validity of the charge(s), the Wolesi Jirga must convene within one month a Loya Jirga that would be required to take a final decision on the president. A Loya Jirga, as defined in the constitution, however, cannot be convened without the, as yet, non-existent district council chairpersons attending. Ghani’s legal advisor, meanwhile, has rejected the MPs’ accusations and accused some of the petition’s initiators of being involved “in the behind door games over introduction of the cabinet.” Under these circumstances, the MPs’ actions should be seen as a merely symbolic move, an attempt to put pressure on the president.

Discussions about changes on the subnational level

The government’s, or more precisely Ghani’s performance, at the subnational level has also been criticised. After the president dismissed some 30 officials in Herat province, including the governor, police chief, district governors and district security commanders, during a visit at the end of December, Kabul daily Hasht-e Sobh asked how he could leave the province leaderless, given the “ideological, linguistic, ethnic and religious disputes among its residents” and whether he did not know the province’s importance. The dismissals in Herat had been justified – according to Tolonews – by the “increased kidnappings, robberies and targeted killings of businessmen and government officials” and protest rallies against the situation organised by local civil society activists. The dismissed governor, Fazlullah Wahedi, has publicly challenged the dismissals as a ‘mafia plan.’

The sacking of the provincial chief of police in neighbouring Ghor, a province notorious for the activity of a large number of illegal armed groups, reported on 7 January 2015 looked more like a spontaneous decision, driven by acute problems, than anything planned in advance. After an earlier series of changes in provincial level positions in Kunduz, The Wall Street Journal argued the new president had “found a laboratory for his sweeping effort to overhaul Afghanistan’s local governments,” aimed at “creating clearer lines of responsibility for security in Afghanistan’s provinces.”

Summing up its assessment of the government so far, the civil society Sad Roz (“hundred days”) campaign published a score of how the promises made by “both leading candidates in the run-off election, primarily President Ashraf Ghani” have so far been kept (full report here). It came to the conclusion that out of 110 promises, four were achieved (three in the first ten days), 23 are “in progress” and 83 are as yet “untouched.” It said the full achievements were: the merger of the Office for Administrative Affairs with the office of the president’s chief of staff (a ‘leaner governance’ issue, our earlier reporting here); the signing of the bilateral strategic agreement (BSA) with the US (the report does not mention the SoFA with NATO; our earlier reporting here); the lift of Karzai’s entry ban for New York Times reported Matthew Rosenberg and the Access to Information Law coming into force.

Given the nature of the leaders’ campaign promises, four out of 100 achieved with another 23 in progress may not be too bad a score. The promises (list here) also include establishing a women’s university, setting up health centres for women suffering domestic violence, holding a census, distributing e-tazkiras, decreasing unemployment, and securing the highways. The campaign says after early “rapid progress,” the pace slowed, “possibly because the government was increasingly preoccupied by foreign trips to Saudi Arabia, China, Nepal, Pakistan, as well as the London Conference” and with “the formation of the cabinet.”

That last reason would seem to underlie all of the government’s problems: the fact that it still largely does not exist. There is no team yet of ministers and other senior officials to formulate or carry out policy.

Open question: What’s behind the national level stalemate?

The reasons why Ghani and Abdullah have not been able to come to terms to form a cabinet yet can only be speculated about. (Also find an earlier AAN take on this subject here.) Both sides have managed to keep relatively tight control over leaks and have avoided mutual public accusations for the failure. It seems their teams mainly cannot agree on whether the whole list of ministers has to be approved by both men, whether Ghani would have the final say over of those candidates selected by Abdullah or whether there would be two separate lists, with the portfolios split in advance and without either side having the right to veto the other’s selection. It is also not clear whether this disagreement applies to the choice of governors and other subnational positions; the Abdullah camp has insisted that the September 2014 national unity agreement brokered by US foreign secretary John Kerry (full text here) applies, not just to cabinet (or even key cabinet) posts.

The national unity agreement was ambiguous. Indeed, from the beginning when the term ‘national unity government’ was first heard when Kerry brought both sides together in July, the two camps have disagreed about what exactly this slippery term means. Such ambiguities may have seemed necessary to bring both camps on board, but they stored up trouble for later. Moreover, as we argued in our survey of national unity governments in other countries, those which bring together divergent political forces to face an external threat or embark on a shared goal tend to function far better than those cobbled together because of expediency. Moreover:

[The implementation of national unity government deals] always depends on the political will of the elites to relinquish parochial benefits for the sake of genuinely national interest. The likelihood that this happens is higher in more open systems [then] under more authoritarian circumstances [where] reformist rhetoric often remains window-dressing.

The record elsewhere, then, indicates that, to work, the Afghan national unity government will require members of the elite to put aside their own narrow interests for the sake of the country. As to Afghanistan’s political system – which experience shows is also crucial to predicting success –, it is formally democratic, but in practice executive-dominated. There is also a tradition of state positions being distributed as favours or to keep allies and opposition on board. As a result, Afghanistan lingers somewhere in the middle on the scale of ‘open to authoritarian.’

Strangely, the number of the usual (and ever-changing) lists of possible ministers floating around whenever a cabinet is to be formed or changed has been surprisingly limited so far. Only a few – and often the same – names for some of the key portfolios have featured. Although they fulfil the criteria that no former cabinet members should be re-appointed (and no MPs, according to Kabul daily Anis on 30 December), many of those named have been part of previous Karzai administrations, including the current chief of army staff, General Sher Muhammad Karimi, former chair of the Independent Election Commission Fazl Ahmad Manawi, former intelligence chief Aref Sarwari and former deputy finance minister Ghulam Jailani Popal. (A recent list by the Khaama news agency is here, with no guarantees, of course.) More agreement exists on the assumption that the names for the ministers of interior and finance are the most difficult to agree upon. They are, of course, two of the richest ministries, as well as among the most significant for ensuring the state’s survival.

It seems Ghani wants to personally interview all candidates, based on the agreed criteria (merit, professionalism and their being ‘new faces’ – see our earlier reporting on this here -, rather than because they belong to particular political organisations or patronage networks, although this will also have to be taken into account). There are indications that some of those interviews have already been held and that Abdullah may also be interviewing candidates. The disagreement even on this may be one reason so few names have come out into the public so far; it is said that neither side wants to ‘burn’ their candidates by presenting them openly or even to the other side too early.

Also, the required presidential decrees laying out the competences of the CEO office and to confirm its tashkil are still pending. (1) The same goes for the office of Zia Massud, the president’s High Representative for Reform and Governance, another newly established institution.

There are two other issues at stake, according to another source from one of the camps. One is the future of Atta Muhammad Nur in his position of Balkh governor – all governors have been made acting by a presidential decree. Atta was a key Abdullah backer in the election and his name also came up repeatedly in reporting of threats of violent action (reported and denied) over alleged election fraud. One can see, therefore, why both of the country’s leaders would feel strongly about him remaining – or not – in his post. The other issue is whether the CEO or the first vice president should be in charge of the country in the absence of the president. So far, it has been the latter, as the CEO position did not exist before the national unity government agreement. This discussion has the potential to turn into a major annoyance for Abdul Rashid Dostum, who now is in the position of the first vice president.

When will the marathon start?

To take up an earlier headline of ours, the new government has barely come out of the starting blocks for the marathon for better governance, which it said it would be running. Repeatedly, timelines à la “the cabinet will be announced next week” have strained goodwill both among Afghans and in donor governments. While the latter have not yet come out with anything publicly, the unhappiness appears to have been growing since the president and his CEO attended the London conference in early December last year without any new cabinet faces in attendance.

Afghanistan has many urgent issues to deal with – the economy, the insurgency and a state machinery, which is frequently dysfunctional (a more detailed look at this in our previous dispatch here). Yet the impression so far has been of a lack of urgency in getting the government up and running. To deliver reforms, Ghani and Abdullah need a team. They also need a narrative which can take Afghans with them. Instead, a story familiar from earlier governments is settling around them – that the elites, once again, are arguing over who gets what job while the country suffers.

 

(1) One Afghan website (in Dari) claimed that the decree had already been finished and signed (even with a photo of the alleged document) – but nobody else ever referred to it, including the CEO himself.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape