Political Landscape

Summoning the Ministers: parliament damages its own image


At a time when President Karzai’s last turn in office is getting closer to its end, the Afghan parliament has been turning up the pressure on the cabinet. It was not the first time MPs had summoned ministers to answer inquiries about their performance, with the threat of voting them out of office. This time, though, all of the eleven ministers who were summoned managed to cling on. Accusations of deals between MPs and ministers, involving bribes or promises of appointments, abounded. Gran Hewad, Ehsan Qane and Thomas Ruttig have been following the debate in parliament over the last two weeks and conclude that, while parliament ought to be about putting checks and balances on the executive’s power, its recent summoning of ministers actually reflected the way MPs and ministers end up ‘scratching each others’ backs’, to their mutual advantage. As a result, the lower house’s inconclusive attempts to topple the 11 ministers have had negative consequences for its public image and internal relationships within parliament.

 

Earlier this week, Afghanistan’s lower house, the Wolesi Jirga, exercised one of its constitutional rights – to summon ministers to answer questions about their performance. The process is known as estezah (1) in Pashto and Dari (sometimes, inaccurately translated as ‘impeachment’) and can lead to ministers losing a vote of confidence which should mean they lose their ministries, although the president does not always obey the order of parliament.

The MPs began proceedings against 11 ministers before the winter break and resumed their debates on 1 April. After more or less five days of deliberations, though, all eleven had received a vote of confidence. This is the first time that eleven ministers have been summoned and all have succeeded in getting the MPs’ approval since such proceedings were first undertaken in 2007.

The eleven ministers were summoned because MPs believed, based on a report by the Supreme Audit Office (Edara-ye Ali-ye Taftish), they had spent less than half of the development budgets allocated to them in the fiscal year of 1390 (March 2011-March 2012). However, this charge turned out to be wrong; the audit office had been partially inaccurate in its understanding of the figures. (2) In the end, this supported the ministers’ assertions that their performances had been satisfactory. However, along with the actual meat of the case, there was a great deal of politicking and alleged corruption in how the ministers managed to secure their votes.

Starting on 1 April, the MPs divided the ministers into two groups: seven who had been in their current positions in the fiscal year in question (1390) and four who only become ministers subsequently. The latter four had argued before the winter break that they could not be held accountable for the performance of their predecessors and President Karzai declined to send them to the Wolesi Jirga for questioning. Meanwhile, the cabinet sent a letter of support for the ministers to the Wolesi Jirga. The MPs accepted this argument and corrected their decision against the four. This was the MPs’ first step back from their initially very aggressive stand.

The seven remaining ministers now faced votes of satisfaction. (3) Three were approved by the house on 3 April: Ghulam Faruq Wardak, minister of education; Zarar Ahmad Moqbel, minister for anti-narcotics; and Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, the minister of commerce. These three, with their influential backgrounds gained over the last decade, are known to be well connected to those in power. Moqbel is a former minister of interior, Ahadi a former leader of the Afghan Mellat Party and a former minister of Finance and Wardak is the former secretary general of the cabinet and a decade-long ally of President Karzai.

The votes of satisfaction for two of the four remaining ministers left them in limbo. Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, minister of economy and leader of the Kabul-based wing of Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan, and Muhammad Ismail Khan, minister of power and water, Jamiat-e Islami’s leading commander in Herat, once called – by himself- the Amir of Western Afghanistan are both powerful men. Yet, they were neither able to secure a majority of ‘yes – satisfactory’ votes; however, nor could the MPs who voted against them muster the required 50 per cent plus one vote threshold to pass them as ‘no – unsatisfactory’ (the threshold was 104 of the 206 MPs present, out of 249 MPs altogether).

Arghandiwal and Ismail Khan’s unclear status caused a new division among MPs. One group argued they had to be put to a vote of confidence. A second group argued there was no need to go to take such a vote. A third group said Arghandiwal, who had got 99 satisfactory votes (as against 95 unsatisfied) should be passed as satisfactory, while Ismael Khan (82 – yes: 99 – no) should face a vote of confidence.

This apparently nit-picking dispute was actually all to do with politics. Pro-mujahedin MPs favoured the two mujahedin ministers, Arghandiwal and Ismail Khan. A group of ‘technocrat’ MPs, who are rivals to the jihadis, wanted to put both to a second round of voting and some of the technocrats wanted to ‘compromise’ by allowing Arghandiwal through and concentrating on Ismail Khan. This session ended without any decision but, finally, on 6 April, MPs, the Speaker, his deputies and secretaries (the Administrative Board of the Wolesi Jirga) said it had been decided not to pursue either minister further. This dramatic decision made some MPs unhappy because they had not been given the chance to talk or protest the decision.

Finally, two of the seven ministers failed to get majorities in their votes of satisfaction: Sayed Makhdum Rahin, minister of information and culture, and Wahidullah Shahrani, minister of mines. However, both managed to get through their votes of confidence on 6 April.

The fact that, in the face of arguments by president and cabinet, the Wolesi Jirga went ahead with voting on the seven ministers shows that the conflict was about more than spending. The MPs were trying to flex their muscles, taking on ministers whom the president has kept on in office despite previous votes of non-confidence (such as Ismail Khan) or who have no power base of their own (such as Rahin). The latter, known as relatively liberal, has a particularly difficult job – navigating between those Afghans who support freedom of the media and of speech and conservatives who find much of what already is broadcast and published in the Afghan media unacceptable.

Arghandiwal and Ismail Khan’s inability to muster a majority of votes shows how split the WJ remains when even strong political parties like Arghandiwal’s Hezb-e Islami and Ismail Khan’s Jamiat cannot mobilise majorities.

Particularly interesting is the case of Shahrani, the minister of mines, a young technocrat with a background at the World Bank and formerly deputy minister of finance. He has many admirers in the west because he has proactively concluded contracts for the excavation of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth – seen by many foreign governments as a means for Afghanistan to increase its revenues and get back on its own feet financially during the so-called transformation period of 2014-2024.

In Afghanistan itself, the minister is not so popular and has come under heavy media criticism recently. He was accused of inactivity on both the illegal use of many Afghan mines by warlords and strongmen, and for the payment of exorbitant salaries to a large group on national and international advisors. An investigation by the Hasht-e Sobh newspaper reported that advisors are getting monthly salaries of between USD 8,000 and, for one advisor, an astonishing 107,000. The report quotes un-named officials from the ministry saying advisors who receive huge salaries are obliged to follow the minister’s illegal orders. Shahrani has rejected the accusations.

However, as well as analysing the summoning of the ministers in terms of politics, it can also be seen as a chance for MPs to make money. Accusations of deal-making have been rife – in the house and in the broadcast, print and social media. MPs have been accusing each other of making deals – ie voting for ministers in exchange for bribes or promises of appointments. Sadeqizada Neli, from Daikundi, for example, urged MPs to resign collectively in protest at the deals he said other MPs had made which, he says, undermine the reputation of parliament. (See reporting here). Nur Akbari, another MP from Daikundi, said in the plenary session on 8 April that there was a solution to the current status of the house that the president interferes and stops his cabinet members bribing MPs; he said the money was coming either from the presidential palace or the mafia.

There was a huge Facebook campaign against MPs who were alleged to have made deals with the ministers. One Afghan said it had been a blissful time for both parties. Another said parliament has been turned into Saray-e Shahzada (Kabul’s money market). This is not the first time MPs have been accused of taking bribes (see reporting from last year here).

Beyond the political conflicts involved and accusations of corruption, the whole sorry process also disclosed how Afghanistan’s war ravaged economy suffers from the fact that almost the entire development budget is provided by donors. External funds not spent have to be handed back and the chance to spend them for the benefit of the population is wasted. This problem is compounded by other causes, both donor-related and recipient-related. On the one hand, as some ministers explained during the debate, donor funds often arrive late in the fiscal year, but are tied to short spending deadlines. On the other hand, the efficiency of their use is often questionable in a corrupt administration like Afghanistan’s. Despite these actual problems, the summoning of the ministers to parliament on the basis of their not having spent their development budgets looked like a pretext; the real aim was to tease and harass them – for political and financial reasons.

All and all, the futile summoning of the 11 points to the immaturity of Afghanistan’s political institutions and to corruption in both the executive and the legislature. It would require sustainable institutional reform and real political will to really call officials to account. In the end, what has really suffered this week is the parliament’s reputation as a democratic institution.

(1) Under article 92 of the Afghan Constitution, one fifth of MPs are needed to vote to summon ministers. The procedure for the istizah of ministers in the Afghan constitution is as follows:

…when the summoned ministers answer the questions asked, the MPs votes on whether they are satisfied with the explanation or not. If the answers bring a majority ‘yes – satisfactory’ votes (qana’at), the inquiry is considered finished; if not, MPs decide to give a vote of confidence (ray-e etemad) or not on the ministers.

(2) The MPs took their initial decision to summon the ministers based on their performance according to the sanad-e qate’a (year’s final financial audit report) which shows the expenditures of ministries during the fiscal year. It is prepared by the ministries themselves, sent to and compiled by the Ministry of Finance, then analysed and reconciled with the National Budget document by the Supreme Audit Office, from where it goes to the Wolesi Jirga. The ministers were able to argue that the Supreme Audit Office did not take a number of factors into consideration that impacted on their abilities to spend: that their ministries did not receive the full amount allocated for them in the national budget (which includes resources from internal revenue as well as foreign donors money); that they received their budgets only at the end of the second month of the fiscal year because parliament had approved the general budget after a delay; that some of the donors’ money was received as late as the second half or even last quarter of the fiscal year so that it was impossible to implement planned projects; that in the case of some joint projects with other ministries, partner ministries did not request their part of the project money; that some projects turned out less expensive than planned; that it was not considered that some long term projects were rolled over into the next fiscal year; and that due to insecurity a number of projects were either never started or not completed.

(3) The votes on 3 April were as follows:

Wardak: 124 yes, 73 no, 3 incorrect, 6 blank votes;
Ahadi: 117 yes, 81 no, 4 incorrect, 4 blank votes;
Moqbel: 106 yes, 92 no, 8 blank votes;
Arghandiwal: 99 yes, 95 no, 2 incorrect, 10 blank votes;
Ismail Khan: 82 yes, 99 no, 2 incorrect, 22 blank votes;
Rahin: 88 yes, 108, 2 incorrect, 8 blank votes;
Shahrani: 96 yes, 104 no, 6 blank votes


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Thematic Category: Political Landscape