As the Parliament has entered its fifth(!) week of “silent sessions”, the government is moving towards meeting some of its demands, to some extent – in a typical display of Afghan political ambiguity. A constitutionally-mandated oversight commission has finally been established, but its membership is still incomplete and the controversy over its authorities continues. And some, but not all of the candidate ministers are likely to be introduced to Parliament in the coming days. Martine van Bijlert on Kabul’s continuing game of political ambiguity and tug-of-war.
The world has not paid much attention, but Afghanistan’s Lower House has stopped its regular sessions in protest over what they essentially see as the disregard of their prestige by the executive. There were a few occasions on which matters of great urgency were discussed (among others the commotion over a television report showing a meeting of converts to christianity, as well as briefings on election security), but otherwise the Wolesi Jirga has for weeks now met in so-called “silent sessions”: short plenary meetings in which no real matters of substance are discussed and which end in symbolic table-thumping as a sign of protest.
The boycott started on 22 May after the executive had failed to comply with several ultimatums by the Wolesi Jirga. The first three were announced on 10 April, amidst controversies over the amended Electoral Law and Karzai’s statements against the international community and in favour of the Taleban (his famous threat to join them), while a fourth ultimatum was added when vice-president Khalili, in his capacity as head of the Emergency Response Committee, had failed to appear before Parliament, several times. In these ultimatums the Parliament insisted that the government:
1. establish the commission for oversight of the implementation of the constitution, within 10 days;
2. introduce the remaining cabinet ministers, within 20 days;
3. determine and clarify its fundamental lines of policy, within 30 days;
4. and clarify the status of the head of the emergency response committee.
The pressure had some effect. In early June the “Independent Commission for Oversight of the Implementation of the Constitution” (ICOIC) was finally established. The commission itself is mentioned in the Constitution, but had in all these years not been formed. And even now it is not fully functional, as the government introduced six candidates for what is supposed to be a seven-member body, five of which were voted in on 9 June (the sixth candidate withdrew). (1)
More importantly however, the establishment of the commission does not solve the fundamental disagreement over who has the authority to interpret the Constitution. Over the last years the Lower House has gotten into the habit of sending contested draft laws to the – then non-existing – commission and the MPs will now expect rulings from the commission on the constitutionality of the various proposals. The executive, however, argues that only the Supreme Court has the authority of interpretation. So for the moment the establishment of the commission only adds to the confusion: there are now two bodies with ambiguous mandates and assumed contradicting loyalties. The Supreme Court is assumed to do the President’s bidding, while the members of the newly established commission felt pressured to – reluctantly – agree with the Wolesi Jirga’s interpretation of their authorities, provided the Wolesi Jirga supported them (see the excellent 14 June APAP newsletter for more details; older newsletters can be found here).
The argument over who gets to interpret the Constitution is not as removed from day-to-day politics as it may seem, as most disagreements – whether on the authority of the various government institutions or the appropriateness of certain laws, decisions or actions (remember the decision about the 2009 election date) – tend to ultimately be fought in terms of the (un)constitutionality of the contested issue. So there is still no agreement on where the last word on this lies and apparently no appetite – on all sides – to establish a body with sufficient clout and independence to make judgments based on legal arguments.
In a second sign of movement, the Palace has indicated that it is on the verge of presenting its list of candidate ministers. While diplomats seem confident that it will be a complete list – with possibly again the exception of the ministry for energy and water – MPs expect to be presented with candidates for six or seven of the by now 13 vacant slots. In the past the introduction of cabinet candidates has tended to be a protracted affair, with several last minute delays and changes. This time, however, time is running out.
According to the constitution the term of the Wolesi Jirga ends this coming Tuesday (1 Saratan or 22 June). The elections have been delayed but, as usual, there has been no agreement or even proper discussion on what this practically meant for the period in between. The President has offered to allow the sitting Wolesi Jirga to continue but with limited authorities, which the MPs – unsurprisingly – have dismissed as unacceptable and unconstitutional (and also not in keeping with the extension of Karzai’s own term when he faced a similar situation in 2009).
The half-meeting of demands by the executive leaves the ball in the court of the MPs again. With the campaign period closing in on them, it is not easy for them to determine what might harm them more: continuing their boycott and risking being seen as ineffective and self-absorbed, or ending it and possibly being accused of giving in too soon. In the meantime most of them are eager to go on recess, so they can start their election campaign (the period is scheduled to start in three days, on 23 June), despite it not being fully clear whether they will still have a seat. What does seem clear is that the newly established commission (for oversight of implementation of the constitution) is unlikely to be the body that resolves the issue.
(1) The five members are: Gul Rahman Qazi; Sayyed Omar Munib; Muhammad Amin Ahmadi; Mahbooba Hoqoqmal; and Abdul Qadir Adalatkhwah. Samar Gul Ashraf withdrew. The commission apparently has to have a quorum of five for its rulings, but it is unclear whether this also means that they can start their work with just five members.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020