We are so used to hearing stories of Afghanistan as a country ruled by tribal chieftains derisively called by some as warlords with the President forced to conduct government business by pandering to their whims and fancies, that signs of a parliament that is working has failed to attract enough notice. Thus active interventions of the Parliament in Afghanistan need more attention and if the trend continues by 2014 we may have a strong and functional legislature, which is the base for democracy in the country.
The parliament was weak thus far but a year in its term with number of MPs forming coalitions and fronts they are posing challenge to the Karzai government which had been having a virtually free run of governance in the country without many restrictions and checks and balances so far. This had also resulted in the President having avoided providing names of some ministers which were earlier rejected by the parliament. Thus acting ministers of his choice continued in office whereas alternate names were required to be approved by the parliament.
The popular belief is that political structure in Afghanistan has remained feudalist therefore Mr Karzai can control the country only through his clan networks and former colleagues. To win loyalty of others he has to use political bargaining which requires major compromises. Thus despite pressure from the parliament for the past few years he has not been able to nominate new members of the cabinet. There are obvious pressures on him not to dethrone acting ministers who have been rejected by the parliament previously and are thus not eligible and also by others interested in occupation of the seats that are likely to fall vacant. Given the challenge of balancing between two equally hard options, the President has possibly chosen to do nothing thereby avoiding a major decision that is essential for good governance. How long he would be able to sustain this ambiguity remains to be seen?
The Afghan Anti-Corruption Network (AACN) has also urged the President Hamid Karzai to introduce qualified and honest candidates for Cabinet posts for a vote of confidence by the parliament. With parliament also putting pressure on the President Karzai, hopefully he should be proposing new names for the cabinet before the parliament shortly.
The Afghan House of Representatives is also increasingly active in seeking explanations on the development front from the government. Thus on seeing that many ministries had failed to spend more than 50 per cent of their development budgets a move to summon the ministers was on. Some MPs even threatened to disqualify ministers if the trend continued. "Nearly 17 ministries have spent [only] the minimum amount of their budgets. These ministries should be summoned by Parliament and asked about ineffectiveness in their projects," Shukria Barezia, an MP from Kabul was quoted by Tolonews, an Afghan TV cum news channel. There are also concerns over corruption which has led to seepages in the development budget seen to be increasingly being frittered away due to graft at all levels. Thus the Wolesi Jirga or lower house of parliament wanted to summon the Finance Minister on these issues.
The low spending of the development budget in the country is of concern and while the Wolesi jirga has summoned the Finance minister for the same though the cause may not be with the finance ministry as it would be with others who have not been able to execute projects despite the money allotted. Thus there would have to be more checks on the implementation agencies to whom the funds were allotted for various projects as much as the finance ministry. A number of reasons for the lack of full expenditure by the finance ministry are evident and these would have to be considered including that of security due to which projects could not be implemented. In addition there are others such as non availability of adequate number of local contractors with expertise for execution which would also be responsible for this state. Thus all these varied causes would have to be gone into rather than only depending on the finance ministry to push projects and the parliament should be looking at these issues holistically.
There is also a call for shift to the parliamentary system because of a stand off between the parliament and the President from time to time, though this appears to be more of a threat by opponents of the President than any likely turn of events in the country. The need for having balanced institutions in Afghanistan is no doubt paramount therefore it is apparent that the current dispensation is not seen conducive to good governance due to lack of balance and hopefully there would be some redressal in the days ahead.
While Afghan parliament is not as effective as other national assemblies yet it is apparent that slowly and steadily it is enhancing capacity to question the administration and ensure balance in the institutions. There is a long way to go and there are many divisions on ethnic lines, unholy nexus and alliances, lobbying and infighting which is not unusual in any democracy. What is important for Afghanistan is that issues are being settled in the house through a debate rather than by the gun as in the times of the Taliban. Hopefully those who are negotiating with the rebels will see the difference.