Thursday, April 29, 2010

Beka Feathers
Demagogues and Dictators Afghanistan Parliamentary Analyst

As the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated over the past two years, the public narrative has increasingly resembled a litany of failure: the central government is full of corrupt warlords who are tied to the drug trade, violate human rights with impunity, and are interested in the idea of governance only insofar as they can profit from it. The Afghan National Police are brutal, biased and uninterested in upholding the rule of law. Corrupt officials are becoming more prevalent than opium poppies. As a result, establishing legitimate government has become critical to success in all other areas of the mission in Afghanistan.

In all the fuss about the failures of the central government, however, a surprising success story is being overlooked. The Afghan National Assembly, the country’s highest representative institution, has begun, quietly, to govern. This is a surprise not only because the parliament has long been the forgotten stepchild of the Bonn Process, but also because Karzai and his international allies have done everything possible to prevent the parliament from becoming a strong check to the presidency.

Afghanistan is one of the most centralized countries in the world, and almost everything leads back to Karzai sooner or later. Consider: In Afghanistan, the President has the power to make the budget, pass decrees, hire governors and police chiefs, even to appoint teachers to local schools. Electoral law makes it almost impossible for political parties to operate by forbidding them to organize along any of the nationally recognized identity lines. The international community has largely supported Karzai’s attempts to further consolidate power in his person. The parliament, meanwhile, has lagged behind other government institutions in funding, resources, and capacity.

But starting this year, the parliament seems to have found its feet. Since January, it has challenged Karzai to appoint qualified ministers instead of warlords and cronies, rejected his attempted takeover of the independent Electoral Complaints Commission (the same body that found a third of his votes fraudulent in the election last fall), and refused to serve as a rubber stamp for decrees. In fact, it's been doing what so many outside observers have said is necessary to keep the government from collapsing entirely: serving as a legitimate, Afghan-led check on Karzai's administration.

This is in part because the people now running the parliament are the people who are truly committed to the long-term vision of a peaceful, democratic Afghanistan. They are not operating without spoilers; this is not a parliament of angels. As an excellent Washington Post piece pointed out last week,

"The parliament remains a rogues' gallery of drug barons, criminals and warlords. Many members are uneducated and even illiterate. But the complexion of parliament has shifted over the past year, as the warlords lost interest and a group of reformers -- including many women -- coalesced into a working group of approximately 30 that increasingly drives the body's agenda. "
As the warlords grow bored or disinterested, a space is opening up for people who are genuinely committed to effecting change. Women, minorities, reform-minded moderates who aren’t Karzai loyalists and don’t have an ear in ISAF headquarters now have a place to stand up to the warlords and corrupt officials and demonstrate to the Afghan people that a democratic government truly can look out for their interests.

It is therefore unfortunate that the international community has been so determinedly unengaged with the parliament. When it rejected more than half of his Cabinet appointees on the grounds that they "couldn't even run a small government office," Kai Eide, the UN's special representative in Afghanistan, called the move "a political setback," despite the fact that ISAF and UNAMA had themselves spent months advocating for more qualified Cabinet appointments. This is a problem not only because it indicates a profound ignorance of public opinion on the issue of corruption, but because it undermines exactly the kind of democratic accountability the international community wants and needs to foster.

Like the rest of the Afghan government, the parliament is an imperfect institution. It is not the magic bullet that will transform a government riddled with corruption and abuse. But it is the only government body with both the ability and the will to stand up to Karzai’s one-man destruction derby. Parliamentary elections are coming up in September, and a new crop of reformers are launching their campaigns. If the US and its allies are serious about building a long-term legitimacy for a democratic government that truly represents the needs of Afghans, they should move working with the parliament to the top of their political agenda.

Beka Feathers is a student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston, MA. She studies the role of institutions in conflict-affected societies, with a particular emphasis on legislatures and parliaments. She has worked on legislative issues in a variety of contexts with legislatures from Oregon to Cambodia.


Beau said...

Excellent analysis, Beka.

I agree that a great way to increase the legitimacy of the Afghan political process is to engage with the parliament, but it seems like that would have one of two impacts, one good and one bad.

On the one hand (good impact), increasing engagement with the Afghan parliament would strengthen it as a pole in opposition to Karzai, forcing him to adjust his positions, increase transparency and responsiveness, and ultimately lead to improved governance.

On the other hand (bad impact), increased international engagement with the Afghan parliament would strengthen it politically, causing President Karzai to lose legitimacy and authority to a parliament that has no executive capacity, ultimately leading to a politically impotent president and significantly worse governance of Afghanistan.

You seem to assume that the first (good) impact will happen - why?

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