Afghanistan’s New Legislature: Making Democracy Work
Afghanistan’s New Legislature: Making Democracy Work
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan (Online Event, 5 March 2024)
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Report / Asia 4 minutes

Afghanistan’s New Legislature: Making Democracy Work

The new National Assembly has the potential to play a vital role in stabilising Afghanistan, entrenching pluralism, institutionalising political competition and giving voice to the country’s diverse population.

Executive Summary

The new National Assembly has the potential to play a vital role in stabilising Afghanistan, entrenching pluralism, institutionalising political competition and giving voice to the country’s diverse population. By being accountable to the Afghan people it can demand accountability of the presidential government. However, the success of this fledgling institution remains delicately poised, particularly because of the absence of a formal role for political parties, essential for mediating internal tensions. The lack of such organised blocs has seen power-brokers of past eras try to dominate proceedings. New moderate forces need to move quickly now to establish formal groups within the houses to ensure their voices are heard.

The Single Non-Transferable Voting (SNTV) system used in the 2005 legislative election all but excluded political parties, which are vital for the development of robust democracy. President Hamid Karzai has done all he can to marginalise these parties, leaving him isolated and dependent on unstable alliances in a fragmented body. He probably can win votes of confidence by relying in the main on Pashtun conservatives together with pro-government moderates and members of the smaller minority communities. However, the absence of solid political blocs means he will have to assemble ad hoc support on every issue. Ethnic politics has been, and indeed will likely remain, one of the main organising factors but would be better brought out into the open within formalised blocs.

The rules of procedure allow these as mechanisms – called parliamentary groups in the lower house (Wolesi Jirga), and political groups in the upper house (Meshrano Jirga) – to facilitate efficient parliamentary operation. However, many impulses for their creation – regional, linguistic and tribal – are barred, rendering them all but meaningless. And even then the formation of such emasculated groups has been delayed in the lower house. If parties were required to have charters stipulating internal democratic functioning, their formation based on any criteria should be encouraged also as a means to stimulate the development of true political parties. Given that no one ethnic group has a majority in either house of the assembly, ongoing compromise would be demanded.

In its opening months, the bicameral legislature has functioned slowly but encouragingly steadily, emphasising procedural decision-making. Tedious discussion and repetitive voting on the same topics have hopefully demonstrated to lawmakers the importance of building more formal blocs to organise proceedings as well as the importance of following well-defined procedures.

There have been victories for the opposition, with a Karzai rival elected to head the more important Wolesi Jirga (lower house), though the government secured confirmation of major ministers in a key vote. Fears of deadlock through obstructionism, the sheer amount of work to get through and inexperience have translated into a tendency towards a lack of oversight and acceptance of governmental preferences. But as legislators gain confidence and experience, such acquiescence cannot be relied on. Building good relationships between the institutions of state needs to be a priority now.

That the legislature contains warlords, commanders and drug traffickers is undisputed, but it is the institution, not the individual members, that is important. Their presence must not be used as an excuse to marginalise the body, which in this sense is not unique among the branches of the Afghan state. A policy of co-option over the last four years has entrenched notorious figures in the executive, from the highest central government posts to district level. Those who have committed and are still committing atrocities – in many cases with remarkable continuity – are not held answerable, highlighting the urgent need to reform the third branch, the judiciary. Commitments to disarmament that many candidates made to qualify to stand for election must also be rigorously monitored.

The National Assembly could force religious and factional leaders, who have long claimed to speak for the Afghan people, to prove their real levels of support, which there is good reason to believe is in some cases far less than they assert. It is also a place in which the first stirrings of new national thinking may appear. Under a quota system, around one quarter of its membership is female, in noticeable contrast to the executive. As it moves into substantive work, the National Assembly has real potential to draw the regions to the centre in a way that has not happened in Afghanistan’s history.

But for the legislature – and democratic values – to take root, domestic recognition and international support are required. This is not just about finances, resources and training, but also executive branch and international community interaction with it. National Assembly leaders as well as the emerging moderate voices need to be given appropriate recognition and encouragement. Thus far President Karzai’s government does not seem to have learnt the lessons of the past, appearing instead to calculate that a weak, fragmented legislature would mean more power for itself rather than a lost opportunity for the country. It is imperative that the executive and legislative branches not approach their relationship as a zero sum game.

One of the primary tasks of elected representatives in a democracy is usually to mediate the allocation of resources. Afghanistan is in an unusual situation in that donors control nearly all its resources. Nevertheless, the international community can expect to find the National Assembly a demanding interlocutor. Amid growing disillusionment at the pace of political and economic reconstruction, this is the forum from which to start managing expectations and hearing the priorities of the Afghan people. It must also perform a vital role if the ambitious regulatory and legislative benchmarks laid down in the Afghanistan Compact as conditions for ongoing international commitments are to be met.

It is also vital that Afghanistan have functioning institutions to implement the decisions of its democratic law-making body. If the National Assembly is not seen to be achieving anything, citizens are likely to lose faith in democratisation as a whole, allowing old powerbrokers to reassert themselves outside constitutional structures. The need to ensure implementation of laws highlights again how vital it is to reform and strengthen the civil service, police and other institutions of state.

The National Assembly’s creation was just one further step in the country’s political transition, certainly not its end. A well-established, accountable and respected legislature would add to stability by allowing a wide spectrum of voices to be heard at the centre and to participate in setting the country’s future course. The considerable goodwill and energy that is at hand now needs to be harnessed.

Kabul/Brussels, 15 May 2006

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