Afghanistan’s parliamentary election on September 18 is shaping up as a critical democratization test. Over the past five years, parliament has acted as virtually the only check on President Hamid Karzai’s authority. Experts are wondering whether the legislators who are elected in the upcoming voting will keep on acting as a counterweight to executive authority.
Karzai has steadily accumulated influence over the Afghan political process during his years in power. But the controversial way in which he secured reelection in 2009, amid allegations of widespread fraud, weakened his political image and heightened concerns about persistent government corruption. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
MPs for the better part of the year have been impeding Karzai’s political agenda, most notably by withholding confirmation for many of his picks for cabinet positions.
At stake in the September 18 voting are 249 seats in the lower house of parliament. Almost 2,500 candidates are registered. Not surprisingly, Karzai has been working diligently to increase the chances that the elections will produce a legislative branch that is more pliant to his wishes. Political observers are worried that such a result could have damaging consequences for the democratization process.
“While pre-election politicking […] has generated a prominent (and very public) chasm between the Wolesi Jirga [lower house of parliament] and the Karzai administration, under the surface exist connections between MPs and the executive that threaten to strip the parliament of any monitoring or oversight capacity that it currently has,” writes Anna Larson in a recent report on the elections published by the respected Afghan Research and Analysis Unit (AREU).
The country’s unwieldy electoral system impedes political parties from contesting polls. The result is a fragmented polity, in which parties have a hard time coalescing into nationwide political forces. As a result, Afghan politics since the ouster of the Taliban from Kabul in late 2001 has been characterized by loose and shifting coalitions, hampering parliament’s ability to check the executive branch.
Despite the obstacles in the way of political parties, factions do exist. But some prominent leaders of major factions, such as Uzbek strongman General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Hazara leader Mohammed Mohaqiq, are floundering. Having supported Karzai in the 2009 presidential elections, they now find themselves largely sidelined, with few of Karzai’s political promises having been fulfilled. As a result, their political leverage in the parliamentary election campaign has been greatly reduced. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
In addition, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, in contrast to a year ago when he emerged as the de facto leader of the opposition by challenging Karzai for the presidency, has seen many of his supporters drift away, co-opted by Karzai’s shrewd political maneuvers. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
First-time candidate Haroun Mir is well aware of parliament’s limitations and Karzai’s ongoing efforts to secure a more biddable legislature. “Instead of strengthening legal institutions, President Karzai has built parallel institutions and processes like the peace jirga and the high council for peace which have no place in the constitution. In doing so he has undermined parliament,” Mir told EurasiaNet.org.
Mir fears that money, muscle and fraud will mar the forthcoming elections. If that happens, Mir added, irreparable damage could be done to the country’s democratization hopes. “They [Karzai supporters] are doing everything they can to get a majority. Fraud will happen no doubt. It will be widespread in the South. But if we don’t take the fight [to parliament], if we leave the spaces empty, we could lose everything,” he said.
“This could be the last chance for Afghanistan,” Mir continued. “If we can not change the situation, bring some hope, Afghanistan could slide into chaos, into civil war.”
Though his political career began with the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban network of which Abdullah was a key member, Mir is now disillusioned with the ineffectiveness of the opposition and has parted ways.
Asked about the weak state of his opposition, Abdullah told EurasiaNet.org that he expects “at least 60 MPs” to form a loose confederation under his leadership, called the Coalition of Hope and Change, after the vote. Within the fragmented parliament, a bloc of 60 (out of 249 seats) could wield considerable influence, if it proves cohesive.
Many experts are skeptical that Abdullah’s efforts to form such a parliamentary faction will work. MPs are expected to remain likely to form coalitions according to expediency, especially when they stand to benefit personally and financially, observers say. Without a powerful party system, MPs are not bound to follow any particular line, leaving them open to pressure and patronage from the Karzai camp.
About 80 percent of incumbent MPs are seeking reelection. Also in the running, noted Noah Coburn in a separate AREU report, “are a group of influential commanders who chose not to run in 2005.” These commanders now see the “clear financial benefits of securing a seat and feeling reassured by a continued culture of impunity.”
Afghanistan’s increasingly dangerous security environment promises to create challenges on election day. Election officials indicate that close to one out of six polling centers are unlikely to operate on September 18 due to the threat of violence. A prolonged ballot-counting process also could create opportunities for fraud, some observers say. Preliminary results are not expected until October 8, and official tallies may not be announced until Halloween.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.