A guest-post by Una Moore.
The danger is frighteningly real. A constitutional crisis is threatening to tear the Afghan government apart and could soon turn violent. Much more needs to be written about this, but not by people who don’t understand Afghan politics, not by people like Robert Dreyfuss, who just wrote a jaw-droppingly ill-informed piece of analysis for the Nation. In ‘Government in Afghanistan Nears Collapse,’ Dreyfuss not only gets the most important facts in the story wrong, he also frames the whole crisis in ethnic terms, a spectacularly irresponsible move for any international affairs writer.
The worst parts, followed by my (exasperated) corrections and clarifications:
Dreyfuss: […] In case you haven’t been following the news: last year’s parliamentary election was so chaotic and flawed that it resulted in the near-total disenfranchisement of Afghanistan’s Pashtun ethnic minority, which makes up a healthy 40 percent of the population. Many Pashtuns either didn’t vote, because of sympathy or support for the Taliban and dislike of the Afghan government, or couldn’t vote, because of Taliban threats and violence. As a result, in some provinces in the south and east where Pashtuns dominate, not a single Pashtun was elected to parliament.
Disenfranchisement of Pashtun communities was widespread enough to affect the outcome of the elections, but calling it “near total” is a gross exaggeration. Pashtuns currently hold around 35% of seats in the elected lower house of parliament.
The only province with a Pashtun majority that didn’t send a single Pashtun MP to the parliament was Ghazni, which is ethnically mixed and has large, deeply divided populations of Pashtuns and Hazaras. Ghazni’s Pashtun-majority districts were subjected to a relentless campaign of intimidation by the Taliban during campaign season and several districts were effectively under Taliban control throughout the electoral process. The Hazara-majority districts were relatively safe in comparison and saw vigorous pre-election campaigning, although they too experienced intimidation, including the beheading of a local candidate.
One month before Election Day, the Afghan security forces, with input from NATO, made the call on where polling centers could be safely opened countrywide. In Ghazni, markedly fewer polling centers were to be opened in the embattled Pashtun areas than during previous elections. Then, many of the centers that did open in Pashtun areas saw no voters on Election Day, thanks in no small part to the Taliban flooding those areas with night letters threatening to maim and kill voters. In contrast, voter turnout in the Hazara districts was very high. The result was that all 11 of Ghazni’s parliamentary seats went to Hazara candidates.
Ghazni was recognized as a landmine in the electoral process as soon as the election stakeholders received the list of polling centers that would open on Election Day, September 18, 2010. Everyone involved realized Ghazni would become a political and potentially violent flashpoint when the results of the elections were announced, but Election Day was mere weeks away and the consensus among decision-makers seemed to be one of getting it over with and dealing with the consequences later.
Drefuss: For Karzai, [the outcome of the elections] was a disaster, especially since he’s trying to reach out to his Pashtun base as part of his search for a deal with the Taliban and its allies. Earlier this year, a special court appointed by Karzai ruled that sixty-two members of parliament, mostly non-Pashtuns, were elected fraudulently, a step toward installing Pashtun members in their place.
Not true. The only province where the special court’s decisions would significantly change the ethnic division of representation is Ghazni, where the court wants to replace four of the eleven sitting Hazara MPs with four Pashtuns. For the rest of the country, the court’s decisions wouldn’t significantly change the ethnic and gender composition of the parliament. In fact, 25 of the 62 seats the special court wants to change belong to Pashtun MPs, more than those belonging to MPs of any other ethnic group.
Hold up, you say, that doesn’t make sense. Well, it actually does make sense, but not if you view Afghan politics only through the narrow lens of ethnicity.
Ethnicity matters among Afghan politicians, but it is not a reliable indicator of political affiliation or loyalty. Even party affiliation isn’t a reliable indicator of where an individual legislator will come down on a nationally controversial issue, because Afghanistan’s party system is weak and party discipline within the parliament is almost non-existent.
The president knows that his special court could, for example, replace 10 Tajiks affiliated with the “opposition” Jamiat-e Islami party with 10 different Jamiati Tajiks and still give him 10 additional supporters in the parliament. And it appears that, broadly-speaking, that’s Karzai’s plan.
Dreyfuss: […] Karzai’s opponents in parliament, especially Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras who oppose Karzai’s outreach to the Taliban, cried foul, challenged the constitutionality of the court, and demanded the impeachment of Karzai.
The MPs have only begun debating the possibility of impeaching Karzai, while they have already voted to remove six Supreme Court judges and the Attorney General. Moreover, the MPs aren’t the only ones who have challenged the legality of the court. Every informed Afghan with a shred of independence has also done that –because the fact is, the special court has no authority under the constitution or the Electoral Law.
Afghanistan’s largest non-governmental election monitor, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan*, recently stated that: “Interference in the electoral process or its outcome by other branches of the government, individuals or ad hoc bodies threatens the separation of powers within the state and undermines the authority of the electoral institutions.”
Dreyfuss: Yesterday, the two sides actually came to blows in parliament!
Two female MPs got into a fistfight and the media had a hearty laugh over it. Look, girl fight!
But here’s the thing: physical fights in the Afghan parliament are nothing new. There were plenty of them in the 2005-2010 parliament and they were sparked by heated debates over a wide variety of issues. Tempers run hot in the lower house of the legislature and brawls alone aren’t an indicator of the political situation having reached a boiling point.
Dreyfuss: Staffan de Mistura, the UN representative in Afghanistan, is meeting both sides in search of a political accord. But he’s also sided with the anti-Karzai forces. “A court is supposed to find criminals, not to change the outcome of the election,” he said. But that’s wrong. A court is precisely supposed to rule on the propriety of elections, although Karzai’s opponents challenge the validity of this particular court.
Staffan de Mistura has not “sided with the anti-Karzai forces.” He has sided with the law, and with the constitutional separation of powers.
Article 156 of the Afghan Constitution establishes the IEC as the sole authority for the administration of elections and announcement and certification of election results. And Article 58 of the Electoral Law couldn’t be more explicit: “The results of elections shall be final and binding after certification by the [Independent Election] Commission.” Neither the constitution nor the Electoral Law permits the creation of a special court to review election results or the involvement of the Attorney General in electoral affairs.
Dreyfuss: Meanwhile, at stake is not neat legalities but the very fabric of Afghan politics and society: Will the Pashtuns, and eventually the Taliban, be integrated into Afghan politics, or not?
Needless to say, the more the Pashtuns are excluded and marginalized, the more they will turn to the waiting Taliban. Especially as US forces start to leave.
It is true that most Taliban members and supporters are Pashtuns, but it is equally true that most Pashtuns are not members or supporters of the Taliban. And while millions of Pashtuns were disenfranchised by violence during last year’s elections, Pashtuns are by no means locked out of Afghan politics. Nor are they proportionally under-represented within the state, with the notable exception of the security forces.
*Full disclosure: I was an international consultant to FEFA during 2010.