Afghanistan’s new parliament convened on December 19 in the presence of U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney. Among the items on the opening agenda, the legislators had to select chairmen for each chamber of parliament, and they opted for two former resistance leaders.
The upper house elected Sibghatullah Mojaddadi on December 20. Considered to be a moderate, Mojaddadi was the first Mujahideen president and is a close ally of President Hamid Karzai. His most recent post was head of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission.
The race for the speaker of the house sparked considerable horse-trading among factional leaders. Among the candidates were Noorolhaq Oloomi, a former communist general; Shokria Barakzai, a relative newcomer to politics and the leading female candidate; Rasoul Sayyaf, perhaps the most controversial Mujahideen leader; and Younos Qanooni, another former resistance leader. After the initial voting proved inconclusive, the final showdown was between two former Mujahideen leaders: Sayyaf, who many human-rights organizations have implicated in some of the worst violations of the Afghan civil war, and Qanooni, who is also accused of trampling on rights but not to the same extent (IPS, December 20).
Two other candidates withdrew from the race. Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president and a Mujahideen leader, sided with Qanooni; and Haji Mohammad Muhaqqiq, the former presidential candidate and Hazara leader who received the highest votes among all the candidates running for parliament, sided with Sayyaf, in exchange for becoming his deputy.
Muhaqqiq had been an ally of Qanooni in the National Understanding Council, a strong opposition alliance. But not only did he lose his bid for deputy speaker, he also saw his popularity as the undisputed Hazara leader drop dramatically. Many Hazaras consider Sayyaf to be one of the individuals responsible for most of the atrocities committed against the Hazaras and Shiites in the western part of Kabul between 1992 and 1996. The human rights organizations that accuse him of violations cite these same events. So any Hazara leader who sides with Sayyaf is signing his own political death certificate. (RFE/RL, December 20).
Eventually Qanooni won the race by a narrow, five-vote margin. He is an ethnic Tajik from Panjshir province and a close ally of Ahmad Shah Masoud, the late Mujahideen leader assassinated in September 2001 by Arabs associated with al-Qaida. Qanooni finished second in the October 2004 presidential election. He is a former general in the resistance and served as minister of interior and education in the interim and transitional administrations, respectively. He was removed from the first post because his faction had already been given three powerful portfolios at the Bonn conference. He resigned from the second post when he ran for the presidency. He was a member of Shora-e-Nezar, the faction run by commander Masoud and formed from Jamiat-e-Islami of Rabbani. He left both groups to form his own party, the National Movement of Afghanistan.
It is not clear how his election will affect Afghan politics. Qanooni is a non-Pashtun and is known to strongly favor his ethnic kin, especially the Panjshires. In a country divided along ethnic lines, his election brings a division of power among various groups. At the same time, his presence as speaker of parliament may polarize the legislature.
Qanooni was elected speaker not for his popularity, but because of the animosity toward his main rival. The Pashtuns did not field a strong candidate who would attract the support of the majority of parliament. Their other candidate was the communist-era general Oloomi, who is not accused of any past atrocities himself, but his very association with a bloody regime puts him at a disadvantage. It is quite possible that some Pashtuns even threw their votes to Qanooni, albeit reluctantly.
His relations with other ethnic groups, such as Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Baloches are on relatively shaky ground. Elements from his party, perhaps with his approval, have antagonized Hazaras and Uzbeks in the north. The recent assassination of a prominent Hazara candidate from the northern Balkh province, Ashraf Ramazan, was blamed on the provincial governor, who comes from the same party as Qanooni.
Qanooni also has a rather cold relationship with Karzai, who seemed to favor Sayyaf. His election as the speaker will mean quite a bit of trouble for the president, whose cabinet must be approved by the parliament.
For human-rights advocates and Afghans in general, Sayyaf’s prominence and President Karzai’s appointment of Arsala Rahmani, the Taliban’s former deputy minister of religious affairs, to the upper house of parliament indicate that the country is still in the grip of religious conservatism. These two leaders are representatives of the type of people that most Afghans believe should be brought to justice for the atrocities that were carried out before the Taliban fell in 2001.