Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Tired of the Estezah? Minister for Women’s Affairs survives vote of no confidence

Thomas Ruttig 9 min

The Minister for Women’s Affairs, Delbar Nazari, has narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in parliament earlier this month. This is the latest in a long series of such motions against ministers that have become a means of carrying out political confrontations by proxy in parliament since a long time. MPs, however, seem to have become tired of this practice themselves lately. AAN senior analyst Thomas Ruttig summarises these latest events (with contributions by Salima Ahmadi, who witnessed the debate in parliament, and Ehsan Qaane).

Al-Hajj Delbar Nazari - Minister of Women’s Affairs of Islamic Republic of AfghanistanAl-Hajj Delbar Nazari - Minister of Women’s Affairs of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

A group of MPs from the lower house of the Afghan parliament has failed to oust the Minister for Women’s Affairs, Delbar Nazari. She was accused of corruption and professional ineffectiveness. In the end, only 51 out of 125 MPs present supported the motion when the vote took place on 13 July 2016, while 68 rejected it (there were also three blank votes and three votes were ruled invalid). Almost all MPs present would have had to support the motion in order to have the minister sacked. With currently 234 MPs, (1) 118 MPs constitute the required majority. Minister Nazari is an Uzbek from Balkh province and a nominee of the Chief Executive’s camp for the cabinet of the National Unity Government (NUG). Despite her ethnicity, she has no links to the main Uzbek party, Jombesh. (Read a short biography of the minister in footnote 2.)

The constitution (Article 92) gives parliament the right to summon and potentially oust high-ranking government officials who need a vote of confidence to secure their office (ministers or the heads of institutions equivalent to ministries, such as the heads of the Central Bank and the NDS). This procedure is called estezah in Afghan parliamentary terminology (meaning “interpellation,” sometimes wrongly translated as ‘impeachment’).

According to its internal regulations, the lower house (Wolesi Jirga) requires that at least a fifth of its MPs sign an estezah motion. After that, a question-and-answer session (called estejwab, from the word jawab, for “answer”) must be held, followed by a vote. Should an MP lose this vote, he or she must resign from their post and the president should nominate a new candidate (see this AAN dispatch about how the Wolesi Jirga works). This, however, has not always been the case in practice. Former President Hamed Karzai in particular had a record of repeatedly ignoring such parliamentary votes: then Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, for example, kept his position until January 2010, in spite of receiving a vote of no confidence in May 2007; see here).

The right to carry out estezah was conferred to parliament by the 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga (CLJ), during which there was strong disagreement between those who supported a centralised presidential system and those who favoured a parliamentary one. The centralist group constituted a narrow majority while those favouring a stronger parliament represented a strong minority of about 45 per cent of the CLJ delegates (read this AAN dispatch: The process of estezah, therefore, was granted as a concession to the minority. And it has backfired.

This series of interpellations – for example, parliament went after eleven ministers in early 2013 alone (see AAN analysis here) and sacked Karzai’s defence and interior ministers in one go in 2012 (see AAN’s analysis here) while there had only been two estezah motions during Ghani’s presidency before the one against Nazari (3) – as well as the former president’s reaction (or lack thereof) to this event put considerable strain on the relationship between the Afghan legislative and executive branches (see this AAN dispatch). It has also had repercussions to this day, as the practice has undermined the position of the cabinet and its members in the political system. Presidents have been able to side-step parliament’s powers by establishing internal, opaque decision-making or advisory bodies, usually referred to as ‘the Palace.’ This has often relegated the cabinet ministers, particularly those described as ‘technocrats’ without their own power-base, into a subordinate position where they have to carry out decisions taken above rather than make their own ones.

Nazari was also probably lucky, as this motion came at a time when both houses of parliament, and particularly the lower house, were deciding on the composition of a joint Wolesi Jirga/Meshrano Jirga commission on electoral reform, an issue long overdue (see AAN’s analysis here and here), which they apparently considered to be more important than the motion against Nazari. (4)

What were the accusations against Nazari?

According to the Secretary of the Wolesi Jirga, MP Erfanullah Erfan, four reasons were given for summoning the minister: 1) accusations of fesad, which cover both administrative and moral corruption; 2) nepotism, ie the appointment of relatives to positions in the ministry, 3) weak management, and 4) her inefficiency as a minister. It is unclear, however, who initiated the motion and how many MPs signed it before it reached the Wolesi Jirga. These documents are not publicly available.

As far as AAN was able to ascertain, there were no concrete accusations or even evidence for any of the charges laid against Nazari in the written motion. This led to some finger-pointing and denials. Two female MPs told AAN that three of their female colleagues – Fawzia Kofi, from Badakhshan province and head of the commission for women’s affairs, Razia Sadat Mangal from Paktia province, and Rubaba Parwani from Kabul province – had been behind the estezah motion. Sadat Mangal acknowledged that she had signed the petition, but said she had not initiated it. (She told AAN it was initiated by Kabul MP Kubra Mustafawi.) Parwani refused to comment, and Kufi was unavailable to AAN for comment. The fact remains, however, that only female MPs took the floor when the motion was debated.

Another emotional point raised against the minister in the debate was an alleged case of rape, which had occurred inside the ministry – although actually under the current minister’s predecessor. Some MPs – including Parwani and Mustafawi – reproached Nazari for hiring the father of the alleged perpetrator (the latter had worked in the ministry himself but was fired after the incident) as her adviser. These allegations failed to mobilise a sufficient number of MPs. The parliament’s administrative board apparently also decided not to follow up on the charges made, although MP Parwani claimed she had submitted documents as “evidence” against Nazari (which a member of the board denied when talking to AAN).

Two MPs close to the main Uzbek party Jombesh, Bashir Ahmad Tahienj from Faryab and Qudratullah Zaki from Takhar, rejected another accusation against the minister when talking to AAN, that Nazari had promoted fellow Uzbeks in her ministry in what would amount to ‘ethnic nepotism.’ Quite the contrary, Tahienj alleged, as Jombesh was in fact unhappy that Nazari had not, in their view, appointed enough Afghan Turks to her ministry: “This was the reason we [Uzbeks] spoke to her so many times: why could she not appoint some Turktabar (5)?” The minister’s brother, however, works as an advisor at the ministry; Nazari insists she needs him as a mahram.

The two MPs further noted, when talking to AAN, that Nazari had told them certain female MPs had turned against her after she had refused to give jobs in the ministry to their relatives. According to Tahienj and Zaki, the minister said those MPs had then threatened ‘to take revenge’ by getting her removed from her post. In the debate, Nazari admitted to shortcomings in her ministry’s work and said the next time she is called in, she would present the ministry’s achievements. She claimed that all her recent appointments had been approved by the president’s office.

On another point, Nazari had also been accused by a number of MPs – including Shakeba Hashemi from Kandahar and Rayhana Azad from Uruzgan – of improper behaviour, undermining the constitution and the country’s judiciary and giving legitimacy to the Taleban. During a press conference (reported by Afghan media here), she had urged the Taleban to “punish perpetrators of violence against women” within their own ranks. The minister stood by her statement, arguing that she had aimed at preventing the Taleban from stoning girls and women accused of ‘moral corruption’ and that she, in the holy month of Ramadan, had wanted to contribute to peace building and ending atrocities against women (here).

Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, the WJ speaker, cut short this debate (as one other MP confirmed to AAN) as the accusation had not been a formal part of the motion against Ms Nazari and urged MPs to vote for the continuation of her term in office.

What was the politicking behind the anti-Nazari motion?

The motion against Minister Nazari had elements both of political infighting between the two camps in the NUG and of longstanding conflicts between different female politicians for influence over the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA). Kufi, Hashemi and Fatima Aziz, who were actively involved in the move against Nazari, belong to the Abdullah camp. Before the NUG was formed, Kufi and Hashimi had apparently harboured aspirations for top MoWA positions themselves, according to some MPs. Furthermore, no male MPs spoke against Nazari in the debate; most votes of no confidence came from female MPs.

The post of Minister for Women’s Affairs (6) has been highly sought by individual female politicians ever since its introduction by the 2001 Bonn conference. This has often caused rifts within the post-Taleban women’s movement and among individual female politicians. This post’s importance is enhanced by the fact that it is seen among Afghan elites as the only clear ‘women’s slot’ in cabinet where, usually, only a small number of women are members (currently four out of 24, far below the 25 per cent quota for women MPs). Starting with the first minister appointed at the Bonn conference, there have been repeated accusations of ethnic or political ‘monopolisation’ of positions in the ministry and/or the exclusion of relevant women’s networks. The current infighting and accusations and counter-accusations among female MPs provide more evidence that there is no unified ‘women’s block’ in parliament pursuing a joint women’s rights agenda.

Nasima Niazi, an MP from Helmand, made another important point. She told AAN that although Minister Nazari was not from her ethnic group and neither did they share the same political views, she had decided not to support the vote to have her ousted, as the estezah sessions had become “subjective“ affairs. She also accused the house of a gender bias, as originally signatures for three estezah motions were collected (the others being against the (male) ministers of trade and commerce and of education), but only the female minister was subjected to it. (Speaker Ibrahimi shifted the blame to the committee of the chairs of the parliamentary commissions (kamita-ye ru’asa) by stating that this is the body responsible for setting the house’s agenda.)

First swallows of spring, or more?

More importantly, Niazi’s complaint against the estezah’s use as a political tool to push parochial (and sometimes unlawful) interests of individual MPs seems to reflect a growing uneasiness about this practice in the Wolesi Jirga. Such complaints, as well as the accusation that the house’s administrative board treats different ministers differently, have been increasing for over a month. In the case of the trade and commerce minister, for example, some MPs who initially signed the motion later withdrew their signatures, one MP told AAN. The plenary also showed no signs, despite repeated demands by some signatories, to start the estezah procedure. Also, the last candidates for the long vacant posts of defence minister and head of the intelligence service (NDS) went though unexpectedly smoothly in parliament in May 2016 (see AAN’s reporting here).

This constitutes a move towards a much-needed ‘normalisation’ and professionalisation of the Afghan parliament’s work. On many occasions, it has acted as a body that is merely a conglomerate of individuals pursuing parochial interests, neglecting to pull together and pass vital legislation for the sake of the nation’s interests (see this AAN analysis). It remains to be seen, however, whether this represents a general shift or, as the Afghan proverb says, is just the arrival of the first swallow before spring has properly sprung.


(1) A group of MPs that were boycotting the WJ sessions (see AAN’s reporting here) since mid-May about the TUTAP controversy had one by one returned by June. MP Shinkai Karokhel, who was appointed ambassador to Canada on 13 May 2016, is still attending parliament as her credentials have not been given yet. Two more MPs appointed to governmental posts (Naqibullah Faiq for head of the Afghanistan National Standards Authority in February 2016 and Shukrai Barakzai, appointed ambassador to Norway in February 2016), have not been replaced as this is legally impossible in the last year of the WJ’s tenure. The quorum has not been lowered, though.

(2) Al-Hajj Delbar Nazari, born in 1958, is an Uzbek from Khulm district in Balkh province (formerly part of Samangan).  Although some sources, such as a NPS Samangan provincial profile (not available online anymore) associate her with Jombesh, she told AAN that her nomination came from the CEO team, in particular from Atta Muhammad Nur, the acting governor of her home province Balkh whose rivalry with Dostum is well known. She obtained a degree from the Teachers Training Centre of Balkh (Dar ul-Mu’alemin Balkh). According to her introduction in parliament, she also holds a degree from Balkh University in Dari and English literature and one from the private Kateb University in International Relations (2011). Her own biography posted on the MoWA website includes stints as both teacher and principal at the Naeem Shahid High School in Samangan (ten years), as well as work with Oxfam (three years), German Agro Action (three years), ZOA (a Dutch NGO) and UNICEF (two years, allegedly as head of educational programs in Samangan) and as civic educator for the joint elections management body (JEMB) for the presidential elections in 2004 (no details or order given). From 2005 to 2010, she served as a member of parliament for Samangan. In 2012 and 2013, she worked as “a legal advisor to the first deputy.” Before her appointment as minister, she worked in the Ministry of the Interior’s department for the development of the electronic national ID card (gender section).

(3) Both happened In the second sitting of the 2015 legislative year (7 September to 20 January 2016): On 2 November 2015, then interior minister Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi survived a no-confidence vote (see here) and as did telecommunication minister Abdul Razaq Wahidi on 4 January 2016 (see here).

(4) At that point, the WJ had not been able to nominate its members for the commission, while the MJ had already named its delegates. The WJ finally followed suit on 18 July 2016.

(5) “Turktabar is a relatively new term, used by some not only for members of Turkic ethnic groups in Afghanistan, ie Uzbeks, Turkmen and Kyrgyz, but also to include the Hazara, Qizilbash and Bayat, claiming that they all belong to a larger, joint ‘Turco-Mongol’ group.

(6) The first Minister of Women’s Affairs was Sima Samar who served in this post from 2001 to early 2003 in the post-Taleban interim and transitional authorities (before the first regular elections). She was followed by Dr Habiba Surabi (2003-04) – when Samar became the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) – and, after the 2004 presidential election, Dr Massuda Jalal (October 2004-July 2006). In July 2006, Dr Husn Banu Ghazanfar received the vote of confidence for this position from parliament. She served up to the formation of the NUG cabinet after the 2014 presidential election. The women who served (after 2004) as deputy ministers for policy and vocational affairs were Shafiqa Yarqin, Soraya Sobhrang, Mazari Safa, while Tajwar Kakar, Najiba Sharifi, Maliha Sahak and Muzhgan Mustafawi were deputy ministers for financial and administrative affairs.



Delbar Nazari estezah interpellation MoWA Parliament Wolesi Jirga