This week Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced his choices for 34 seats in the upper house of parliament (Mishrano Jirga), completing a process that began with the September 18 parliamentary elections.
Afghanistan’s new bicameral parliament is made up of a 249-seat lower house (Wolose Jirga) and 102-member upper house. While the lower house seats are all determined by popular election, two-thirds (68 members) of the upper house are chosen from the provincial councils by the council members themselves, and the remaining one-third (34 members) are named by the president. Although selecting the 68 members is important, the remaining 34 seats have sparked the most curiosity, because that list will provide an indication of how President Karzai would approach controversial political figures in the country.
With experts predicting that he enjoyed the support of the more than half of the 249 seats in the lower house, observers expected him to steer away from political figures with a checkered past. However, he proved these predictions wrong by sticking to the same policy that he has followed for other appointments, an approach that some observers condemn as appeasement.
Karzai has made several controversial choices. These include Sebghatullah Mujaddedi, the former mujahideen president-in-exile, the first president of the mujahideen government in 1992, and the current chairman of the peace and reconciliation commission; Marshal Qasim Fahim, a former defense minister and Northern Alliance leader who was instrumental in toppling the Taliban regime; and Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani, the former deputy minister of religious affairs in the Taliban administration. Also on Karzai’s list are Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, the current governor of the volatile poppy-growing southern Helmand province, and Sayed Hamid Gailani, son of one of the former moderate resistance leaders.
Perhaps the most controversial appointment is that of Abdul Saboor Farid, a factional leader from the Hizbe Islami (Party of Islam) of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, currently an ally of Mullah Mohammed Omar. Hekmatyar nominated Farid as prime minister in the mujahideen government of the early 1990s.
Almost half of the appointees are women, including Sediqa Balkhi, the current minister of martyrs and disabled, and Mahbooba Hoqooqmal, a law professor and a delegate at the emergency Loya Jirga that set up the interim government.
Karzai also nominated Ahmad Shah Ramazan from the northern Balkh province. He is the younger brother of Ashraf Ramazan, who was assassinated by unidentified gunmen just before the official results of the parliamentary elections were announced. Ashraf won his race, and Ramazan’s supporters had staged several demonstrations to press the government to give his seat to his brother. However, since it was not possible the pass the seat to a relative under the current law, President Karzai promised the surviving brother a seat in the upper house (Daily Times Pakistan, December 11).
There is also one representative each from the disabled war veterans, the Kuchis (Nomads), and the Hindu/Sikh minority.
As expected, there were complaints from the public and the media about the presence of “war criminals, human right violators, and drug smugglers” in the new parliament. Motehollah Moteh, a disgruntled former candidate, said, “The appointed members of the Mishrano Jirga should be wise and experienced and have higher education.” He continued, “Unfortunately, most of us knew that many of the failed ministers, sacked [former] government officials would be appointed… based on political, tribal, and some other relations” (Sbawoon, December 13).
However, this is not a view shared by government spokesman Karim Rahimi. At a news conference in Kabul, he rejected the criticism of Karzai’s appointments, saying, “All appointments have been made in the supreme national interest.” Rahimi insisted, “The nominees, representing different ethnic groups, were informed intellectuals who had played a crucial role in the revival of peace and stability in Afghanistan over the last four years” (Pajhwok News, December 13).
The roster of appointees does not appear to reflect the ethnic composition of the country. This is a difficult issue for Karzai. He must find the people who would best represent his or her tribe, and at the same time meet other job requirements. Above all, he needs to find loyal figures. In some of the ethnic groups, siding with the president means turning against your own people.
For some members of parliament, working with individuals with a questionable past is not easy. “I will fight against all the warlords who have won and I hope all the good people in parliament will join to fight the warlords,” said Malali Shinwari, a former BBC reporter, after winning a seat in the lower house.
Shinwari is the second woman to speak out against the powerful warlords and their role in conservative, male-dominated Afghan society. The first one was Malali Joya, who made a name for herself in a two-minute speech against the warlords in the Loya Jirga in December 2004 (e-Ariana, December 12).
Many Afghans who have witnessed the atrocities committed by some warlords during the last two decades will no doubt support Ms. Shinwari in her “fight” against the warlords. But whether they and their sympathizers succeed in this crucial struggle remains to be seen. For now, given the heavy presence of conservatives and controversial leaders in the lower house and the appointment of some questionable members to the upper house, the odds seem to be against winning this struggle.