Political Landscape

Tit for Tat – and Worse: The long history of enmity between parliament and government


Red cards – no trust. The photo from yesterday, 22 July, shows members of the Afghan parliament indicating that they were not satisfied with Interior Minister Patang’s answers to their questions. Shortly after, they sacked him. Photo: Wakht News Agency

The relationship between the Afghan president and, by extension, his cabinet and Afghanistan’s parliament has frequently been turbulent over the past years. The latest example came yesterday (22 July 2013) with parliament’s voting out of office of the interior minister, Mujtaba Patang. Earlier, from April to July, conflict centred around the finance minister, Omar Zakhilwal, who publicly accused six relatively high-profile MPs of corruption, a move which enraged MPs. AAN’s Gran Hewad, Thomas Ruttig and Claudio Franco look into the long history of enmity between executive and legislative. Systemic faults, they say, will affect future governments as well.

Since Afghanistan returned to a partially parliamentary system with a strong president,(1) electing its first post-war parliament in 2005, relations between the country’s executive and legislative branches have gone through turbulent times. The relationship only deteriorated further after the 2010 parliamentary elections when President Hamed Karzai, through extra-constitutional instruments, attempted to curb the influence of the lower house of the parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, by questioning its legitimacy.

After the counting and verifying process ran into massive problems, the president established a Special Election Court to do what was necessary at that point: investigate the widespread claims of fraud during the electoral process and determine who had won a seat in the Wolesi Jirga and who had not. The Special Court, however, had no constitutional basis and was actually designed to supplant and disempower the very institution that, according to the law, should have taken on this role, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) (see previous AAN dispatch here).

The Special Court’s establishment must be also seen in the light of Karzai’s clear disappointment with the outcome of the election, with – as he perceived it – too few Pashtuns elected, particularly in Ghazni province where all eleven seats had gone to Hazara candidates (see AAN reporting here). While the court initially challenged the election of 62 candidates, ultimately only nine lost their right to sit in parliament.(2) Nevertheless, MPs perceived the whole manoeuvre by the executive in a dim light, believing it had instrumentalised the judiciary, undermining its legitimacy. Writing in 2010 for AREU, Anna Larsen, described the ‘prominent (and very public) chasm between the Wolesi Jirga and the Karzai administration’ (see here).

Since then, president and parliament have engaged in further tussles, the latter mainly using the threat of votes of non-confidence against cabinet members – as happened yesterday to the interior minister – to make life difficult for the president. Claims of corruption have been used as a political weapon by both sides.

The Zakhilwal controversy

The most spectacular of recent exchanges was the controversy around finance minister Omar Zakhilwal. On 13 April this year, when summoned for inquiry by the Wolesi Jirga – the fourth time since he took office in early 2009(3), Zakhilwal accused six MPs of corruption. The chamber appointed a team from its own ranks to investigate the allegations. When reporting back the following week, it rejected all of Zakhiwal’s claims as false and baseless. The attorney general’s office, which is close to the president, also followed up on the case and summoned the six MPs for questioning. Whether or not this was in direct retaliation for the summons of Zakhilwal and the then interior minister, Bismillah Khan, eventually, five of the six MPs named by Zakhilwal were banned from traveling abroad after they refused to see the attorney general. Only one MP, Hamidzai Lalai, who had obeyed the summons, was duly taken off the list of indicted MPs.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, a response to Zakhilwal’s foray was brewing: a decision to summon the Finance Minister again was made on 17 June. In the hearing that took place on 1 July, 105 out of the 178 MPs present cast a vote of no-confidence against him, an exceptionally high number. Even so, this was not enough to disqualify him – the sacking of a minister requires the majority of the total number of MPs (249). Still, the message reached the President, loud and clear: Zakhilwal’s accusations and the AGO’s initiative in continuing to take action against the six MPs had been regarded as tantamount to a direct attack on the parliament’s autonomy.

A short review of the executive-legislative tussles (2010 to now)

Fast-rewind to early 2010: the President had started his second term after a highly controversial election. He reshuffled his cabinet in January 2010, introducing ten out of the 24 new names(4) in the roster of ministers. He needed to get the parliament’s vote of confidence for all of them. However, his first attempt to work with the parliament in his new term was certainly not encouraging: the chamber rejected 17 of the 24. Karzai insisted on submitting the rejected ones again and, after a second round of voting, a further 7 won their votes. This was a very partial green light, however and not enough for the president. He again introduced seven cabinet members in June 2010 and five of them made it through the vote, although with widespread accusations of bribery of MPs (see previous AAN dispatch here). With the parliamentary elections in September approaching, Karzai postponed the vote on the ten remaining designated ministers, in the hope that the new parliament would be easier to deal with. However, those elections were also marred by widespread fraud and the Special Election Court conflict broke out. This delayed the start of the Wolesi Jirga’s effective work for a year (related AAN report here).

Although the composition of the Wolesi Jirga had changed substantially, with 154 of the 249 MPs elected for the first time and many of the most outspoken MPs of the first parliament having failed to secure re-election, relations between the new house and the executive were strained from the beginning.

In March 2012, the new parliament retaliated. It started pressuring the president to submit the acting ministers for approval. Finally, in the spring of 2012, the nine faced a crucial vote of confidence. By then, many MPs seemed to be having doubts on whether holding out against the president was a good idea: if the ministers were not confirmed, the president would still be able to keep them on as acting ministers rather than replacing them with new candidates. This would have reduced the parliament’s leverage on the nine. On 6 March 2012, almost 18 months after the elections, the nine acting ministers were approved by Parliament (see AAN dispatch here).

Parliament then changed tactics and started targeting the confirmed members of cabinet. The friction between parliament and president peaked last winter when there was an unusually high number of summonings. In December 2012, the chamber ordered all ministers who had spent less than half their development budgets to come and explain themselves – 11 out of the 25 cabinet members. Although eventually the inquiries did not result in the disqualification of any minister, the move still placed enormous pressure on the executive (see AAN reporting here).

In fact, the outcome was a compromise (see background in this previous AAN dispatch). Parliament was able to project the summoning as a significant, if rare, success which picked up issues of popular concern, such as mismanagement and the waste of resources. The government, meanwhile, was able to continue operating without further disruption. Whether it was the intention of MPs or not, by not insisting on any further following up of those ministers, they avoided a mutual long-term paralysis of both the legislative and the executive. Also oiling – in this case – the wheels of politics is, as AREU put it, the network of ‘[b]usiness deals and nepotism… between MPs and cabinet ministers’ that facilitates the exertion of mutual influence ( see here).

This does not mean, however, that the relations between the executive and the legislative had reached calm waters for good. The controversy around the finance minister and a number of emotionally highly charged issues still proved to have the potential to cause tensions to flare up. Weeks of Pakistani cross-border shelling, starting in March 2012, fanned nationalism and anti-Pakistan sentiments throughout Afghanistan (see AAN reporting here). This, on 4 August last year, led to Parliament sacking the ministers of interior and defence, Bismillah Mohammadi and Rahim Wardak, for their alleged lack of effective response (previous AAN dispatch here). The general public welcomed the step enthusiastically. Also, issues linked to linguistic or ethnic identity stalled parliament for weeks. These included disputes over whether electric ID cards should use the term ‘Afghan’ and include the ethnicity (qawm) of the holder, and over terms (Pashto or Dari or both) used in legislation on higher education.(5)

Structural weaknesses

Apart from the impact of such emotionally charged issues, the parliament’s sometimes erratic way of setting priorities is a consequence of how unstructured and weak the body of laws ruling its work has left it. While the constitution and Political Parties Law give larger rights to parties – to field candidates on party lists, for example -, the electoral law prevents just that, by stipulating the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) system as the basis of the country’s elections, pre-empting the creation of solid political blocks that are able to act in a consistent way. The choice to use SNTV was made at the insistence of President Karzai and against warnings from both within Afghan society and the international community, as well as opposition from almost all political parties.(6)

In the absence of any party politics in the legislative, with parliamentary groups based on political party affiliation banned, the house remains fragmented. Each of the 249 MPs is her or his own small party and many MPs interpret their mandate less as a national lawmaker and more like a representative of their constituency, sometimes even of their district (although it is the province and not the district being the official electoral district). A 2011 AREU report that looked at ‘the political economy in the Wolesi Jirga’ (see here) came to the conclusion that, ‘there is also still a clear expectation that MPs will provide certain services to the communities they represent… In many ways, these expectations are similar to those borne by more traditional community leaders in Afghanistan.’ Without political parties empowered to prevail over individual concerns and set real priorities, minor concerns linked to MPs’ respective patronage networks or personal idiosyncrasies are allowed to enter parliament and impede decision making.

On the surface, the problematic relationship between executive and legislative seems to be motivated by both the personalities involved as well as by the issues raised by a centralising agenda, two botched elections and contradictory laws. Under these unfavourable circumstances, hitting the president indirectly by lashing out against his ministers is paradoxically the only way an extremely fragmented Wolesi Jirga is able to come together and transcend individual stances in order to fulfil its role of being a check-and-balance to the executive.

In this light, the attempts to shoot down cabinet ministers, even if often inconclusive, are more than just horse-trading but rather symptoms of an ambiguous system provided for by the current constitution. Add to this the conflicts arising from the political practice of the executive which dominates the legislative by often circumventing, ignoring and undermining it and it is clear that these are in-built faults which will not change with the coming of a new president.

(1) Afghanistan is usually called a presidential system (see here, for example), even though the parliament has some far-reaching authorities. Among them is the right ‘ not dissimilar to that enjoyed by the Iranian parliament, to ‘impeach’ ministers (see here):

The House of People, on the proposal of twenty percent of all its members, shall make inquiries from each Minister. If the explanations given are not satisfactory, the House of People shall consider the issue of a no-confidence vote.
Article 92

(2) This was due to the involvement of the IEC which, in the end, played the role as the neutral intermediary in this executive-cum-judiciary versus legislative dispute. The Special Court failed to meet the President’s apparent expectation to insert a bigger number of pro-president MPs.

(3) There are several reasons why Zakhilwal has been summoned to the Wolesi Jirga so often: initially, MPs accused him of amending the budget without having informed the parliament first. There was also a long-standing controversy about which ministries had underspent on their development budgets during which the Ministry of Finance had contradicted the Wolesi Jirga’s figures (see AAN reporting here). The minister’s position, holding the keys to the Treasury, also makes him a natural target for certain interest groups in parliament who use their position to lobby for their particular constituencies and networks.

(4) The cabinet has 25 members, but no candidate for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was introduced at this time.

(5) The draft Law of Higher Education has been pending for about five years. On 17 June, the plenary session passed five out of seven controversial articles. The remaining two are about terminology: whether, for example, to use pohantun (Pashto) or daneshgah (Persian) or both for ‘university’. (Up to now the laws use the Pashto terms only, for historic reasons; however, they are frequently used in Dari, too.)

(6) This is how AREU explains how SNTV was chosen (p 6-7, here):

‘In Afghanistan, the birth of SNTV was initially something of an accident, engendered by a widespread distrust of political parties associated with the Communist and civil war eras, a misunderstanding of the implications of having a single vote for individual candidates in large multi-member constituencies, and a possible strategy on the part of the executive to limit the emergence of organised opposition…

After the UN-crafted proportional electoral system was poorly explained by an Afghan cabinet minister, President Karzai changed the proposed provincially-based list PR system to SNTV by simply pronouncing that voters would select a candidate rather than a party, list or block, and that candidates could not show party affiliation on the ballot. The electoral law decreed in 2004 thus announced that voters would choose between individual candidates rather than parties, but still in the multi-member provincial constituencies originally intended for use in the list-PR system.’

In an earlier draft, during the current debate, the IEC had proposed to allocate one third of parliament seats to political parties, which would have established a mixed proportional/majority (SNTV) system (AAN dispatch here). The cabinet, presided over by the President, removed this clause from the draft.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape