Afghan parliament will have big visions, few rules of the road

Candidates in Sunday's vote won't be presented on the ballot as members of a party.

Nobody ever accused Mullah Mohammad Khaksar, a former Taliban deputy minister, of being an Afghan Thomas Jefferson.

But his goals for Afghanistan sound remarkably like those of a founding father, and like those of the majority of the other 5,700 candidates running on Sunday in the country's parliamentary election. Mr. Khaksar wants a strong central government, improved security, faster reconstruction, and a serious effort to control drug trafficking and government corruption.

With such broad consensus, Afghanistan should be well on its way toward creating a sound, workable Afghan parliament that serves as a watchdog to the government. But even Khaksar is not so sure it's going to work that way. He fears that many parliamentarians who come to Kabul will be inexperienced, or be just as corrupt as the government they are supposed to be watching over.

"I am very disappointed about the future of this parliament," says Khaksar, a candidate from his native city of Kandahar. "Look, we are building this parliament. But if, instead of using a strong cornerstone, you build with unbaked bricks, will you be able to build a strong building?"

The problem, many candidates and foreign observers say, is the way in which Afghanistan's parliament was created in the country's new constitution. Voters choose candidates as individuals, not as members of a party. This creates an environment where personalities are more important than ideas, coalitions struggle to stick to common agendas, and individual MPs are more easily manipulated by the palace.

"This parliament will not be functional for several years," says Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghan politics at New York University who helped organize the Bonn Conference in December 2001 that set up the post-Taliban government. Rubin says that President Hamid Karzai's habit of ruling through patronage - rewarding those who support him with better positions or development funds - has now set a precedent for many elected parliamentarians to turn to him as a kind of feudal lord with deep pockets.

"Once elected, what is their main goal? To get reelected," says Mr. Rubin. "The goal is to get benefits to a small number of people, with no notion for the benefit of society." He pauses. "I don't know how they are going to pass legislation."

Yet, already there are signs that some candidates are forming three main coalitions. One, led by Northern Alliance politician Younus Qanooni, will act as a sort of permanent opposition to President Karzai, and will attempt to change the system of government to give parliament more power, including a prime minister. A second faction will be a cross section of independents from around Afghanistan, who side with Karzai on most issues. A third faction of liberal and leftist parties will swing back and forth between the opposition and Karzai, supporting the president on common issues, but voting against him on others.

With many voters expressing frustration at the slow pace of reconstruction, and visible signs of corruption in their government, even Karzai's friends may find it necessary to slap the hand that feeds them from time to time.

Mohammad Iqbal, a young independent candidate from Jalalabad in the eastern province of Nangrahar, says he supports Karzai, and particularly the way he mediates local problems through local tribal elders. But if Karzai fails to clean up corruption in government, fails to rebuild the country, or strays too far from Afghanistan's Islamic traditions, Mr. Iqbal says he will vote against him.

"Friendship is friendship, but if Mr. Karzai is anti-Afghanistan, then even if His Excellency Mr. Bush asks me, I will say no," says Iqbal, with a wry smile. His supporters break out in laughter.

Experts say it will take time for Afghan parliamentarians to figure out the new process, when most of the elected officials have no experience in how to legislate and none will have researchers to help them sort out good bills from bad bills.

"With a limited role for political parties, things will be fluid, with lots of deal- making," says Paul Fishstein, director for the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank in Kabul. Many Afghans are optimistic that things will get sorted out in traditional Afghan ways, but Mr. Fishstein says that parliamentarians are in for a rude awakening when they confront the hard work of legislation.

"A lot of people love to talk about improving security, electricity, water systems, but that's not necessarily what parliament is intended to do," says Fishstein. "They'll be passing budgets, they'll be representing the material interests of their constituencies, and that takes a certain level of skill."

He smiles. "It's going to be an interesting parliament."

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