The Lower House of the Afghan parliament is still trying to overcome the difficult hurdle of electing its speaker. Different groups of MPs are arranging for alternative, if not conflicting, solutions. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini listened to different opinions on the best way to get out of the impasse, and discusses their pro and cons. What seems clear is that time-wasting may be becoming too expensive for the MPs, as the storm that was brewing over the parliament struck its first lightning on Monday, with a rather spectacular morning raid by the police and the judiciary at the IEC headquarters.
After a long struggle to get inside the parliament, it seemed that the Afghan MPs eventually decided that the best place to carry out their first major task – the election of a speaker – is actually outside of the building. If there is something that lumps together the fragmented Afghan parliamentarians it is probably the will to get away from endless voting sessions that bear no result whatsoever. So part of them at least decided to find alternative ways and venues to settle the matter.
Monday’s session decided to form a commission deputed to find a political solution to the crisis – the proposal had been sponsored by different MPs, among them Yunus Qanuni and Muhammad Mohaqqeq. The temporary speaker Osmani Farahi did not give time for possible protests against the decision and proceeded to implement it. The assembly was then suspended for an hour to give time to each province’s MPs to appoint their delegate(s). The commission now totals 60 members: one for each province with less than ten seats, two for those with a number of seats comprised between ten and twenty, and three for Kabul; in addition, all the MPs that run as candidates for the seat of the speaker are also part of it.
Its main task will be to provide a political solution to the current stalemate, that witnesses Qanuni and Sayyaf stubbornly entrenched in their resolution to get the position of speaker for themselves. In the last two weeks, four rounds of elections took place inside the parliament with no appreciable results, mainly – as many MPs related – because of manipulation of the voting process caused by external pressures. The same MPs now seem to believe that acting outside the parliamentary session will prove more effective.
Many parliamentarians were quite scathing about the commission. They denounced the fact that it is ‘stuffed’ with both Qanuni and Sayyaf supporters, and predicted that it would therefore be unlikely to produce an alternative candidacy. The positions of the two main contenders, on the other hand, appear too distant to make a compromise solution within reach. Many MPs therefore felt unmotivated to participate: the Badakhshi member for the commission, Abdulwali Niazi – not exactly an experienced MP, many would say – reportedly got his position because nobody else wanted to fill it. The commission had its first meeting this morning and is expected present its work at the next Wolesi Jirga (WJ) session on Saturday.
But the idea of taking the decision-making process out of the doomed assembly is not a prerogative of this commission.
A different set of MPs appear to have a more radical project, planning to take the issue not only of the assembly, but to a different part of town. Starting from the consideration that the perceived leaders inside parliament (e.g. Qanuni and Sayyaf) are always able to ‘buy and sell’ the remaining MPs as their supporters or opponents, co-opting or scaring them at will, a group of ‘not-aligned’ MPs decided to leave the place, to free themselves from the undue influences from those heavyweights.
Their plan appears ambitious: to hold an alternative meeting simultaneous to the commission’s on Tuesday morning, to see if they can gather a majority, of around 125 MPs to stay on the safe side, and if they can, to proceed to choose the whole ‘WJ package’ comprising of speaker, first and second deputy, and the two secretaries. This package would then be presented at Saturday’s session, where, relying on the strength of their numbers, they would argue for a modification of the internal rules of procedure (based on Art. 67 of it, which allows for the MPs to effect changes), and seek its approval by a show of green and red cards. This last approach aims to avoid the secrecy and ambiguity that has surrounded the previous votes and that could undo their efforts towards unity, as it would give time to the erstwhile contestants to make lesser MPs change their mind.
A possible setting for this ‘Kabul Tea Party’ was first identified in the Idgah mosque near Mahmud Khan’s bridge; later, a venue for the protest sit-in was eventually found in a building on Darulaman road, not so far from the Parliament itself.
As it is, the project looks ridden with difficulties. It will not be easy to gather such a high number of participants (especially on a holiday). But even after the possible removal of Qanuni and Sayyaf’s larger-than-life figures from the background, choosing a common set of candidates for the various positions will still prove testing. Then, as some MPs who are not part of the initiative, although equally critical of the 60-person commission, pointed out, the creation of a ‘parliament inside the parliament’ and the complete and deliberate ignoring of the supporters of Qanuni and Sayyaf (but also of for instance Mirwais Yassini and Haji Zaher) may well increase the fractiousness within the house, instead of achieving unity. And by changing the internal rules they will be departing from the legalistic approach, which till now has allowed the independent MPs to resist Qanuni and Sayyaf’s advances.
Anyway, first reports from the alternative meeting point to the presence of 57 MPs. This is clearly not enough to start pushing forward candidacies, but the chance to attract more participants in the next days could still be there, as meetings have been declared to continue until Friday, and some un-invited MPs already decided to join – among others Mirwais Yassini. If the chosen meeting place facilitates this process, it cancels opportunities of a collateral benefit deriving from this kind of initiatives: a fairly representative, visible and alternative gathering of MPs, away from the secluded parliament area, could probably have gained them some recognition by the citizens of Kabul. The latter would not have been a mean feat, given the current low standards of esteem and interest of the population for everything connected to the past elections or the new parliament.
The official commission established by the WJ appears to be potentially more effective, as it has the support of the temporary speaker and several prominent MPs. But as the objective and the means of achieving it put the main players into conflict, it is difficult to envisage a solution coming out of it. Qanuni will probably keep pushing for another round of voting featuring his candidacy, feeling now more confident that he can make it through, while Sayyaf will push for a shortcut to the speaker’s chair by changing the absolute majority into a simple one based on a Supreme Court ruling.
But then another element comes into the frame. Last Saturday the WJ passed a resolution rejecting the summons by the Special Court and asking the President for the dissolution of the court. The discussions were fuelled by rumours that as many as 83 MPs had been accused by the Special Court. The rumours were probably exaggerated (*) – the Special Court refuted them immediately – and were used by Qanuni to mobilise opposition towards the government and ‘its candidates’. The effectiveness of this tool in building cohesiveness among the MPs – the memory of the Intercontinental days (see one of our blogs on it here) still fresh in their minds – was evident when the WJ voted on the resolution by a show of cards (green to approve, red to reject). Only one red card appeared in the whole assembly, and that too was by mistake. At the same time, there are reports that the Special Court has been used as a bogeyman to intimidate MPs into not displeasing the government with their behaviour inside the WJ, or else face enquiries and possible disqualification.
But the Special Court has not only been used as a tool in the struggle for future parliamentary balances. It has now returned to pose as a real threat to the parliament as it is.
On Sunday rumours circulated that a letter from the Attorney General Office (AGO) had been sent to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) ordering them to comply with the Special Court requests. This came a few days after IEC chairman Fazl Ahmad Manawi and his chief executive officer Abdullah Ahmadzai had been summoned to Palace, where they had been asked to cooperate with the Special Court. Apparently the meeting had been a remarkably unpleasant one.
Finally, on Monday morning a large delegation – probably around 15 officials – from the Special Court and the AGO, accompanied by several dozen policemen, entered the IEC premises. Apparently, the only senior officer they could find was Ahmadzai, and they were content to seal the database, hang around for a while and then leave. The IEC later released an outraged press release, which while strongly deploring the ‘despotic show of force’, said between the teeth that the IEC ‘had expressed its readiness to provide required collaboration and legal cooperation with the judiciary’.
The whole operation looked more like a show of force to intimidate the IEC into cooperation than an attempt to find actual evidence of fraud. At the same time, seeking to force the IEC’s cooperation could indicate that the final objective is not just to pose an unspecified threat to some recalcitrant MPs. Special Court delegations have now been registering complaints and opening boxes – or more often sealing them to avoid ‘further manipulation’ – in several provinces. Attempts to change the parliament composition based on the ‘findings’, to whatever numerical extent this may be carried out, is in no way to be excluded.
To complicate matters even more, when Sarwar Osmani Farahi announced the resolution rejecting the Special Court’s summons and asking for its dissolution last Saturday, the motion was passed unanimously. His authority to do so was however later contested, arguing that as a temporary speaker his only task is to supervise the election of a real one. The current MPs, wherever they decide to spend their two-day holiday (Tuesday and Wednesday feature the Prophet’s birthday, called maulud, and another bank holiday), would be well advised to take quick steps to become a functioning parliament with an elected speaker, if they wish to withstand this storm. Otherwise, their recent inclination to gather outside the parliament could be fulfilled in a more definitive way.
(*) Only four MPs seem to have received actual written notification by the Special Court summoning them: Sayyid Eshaq Gailani from Paktika, Shakir Kargar and Fatiullah Qaysari from Faryab and an unknown MP from Takhar. In the meantime there are speculations and rumours about differently sized list of accused MPs.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020