Strongmen to score big in Afghan vote

The new parliament may sit as soon as early December.

As final tallies are being certified, the picture emerging of Afghanistan's first ever fully elected parliament is one dominated by regional strongmen and their allies - men who have ruled this country by gun, rather than the laws they are now charged with crafting.

Afghan officials said this week that the new parliament will likely hold its first session in early December. Only 12 of 34 provinces have had their final results from the Sept. 18 vote certified, but the remainder are expected to be completed shortly.

In the absence of well-defined political parties, it remains to be seen what common agenda will be forged by the 249 new members of the lower house, called the Wolesi Jirga. Preliminary results show 68 women winning seats, the number set aside for them under the law.

But the largest bloc of new parliamentarians, accounting for more than 60 percent, according to the Independent Human Rights Commission (IHRC) in Kabul, are those suspected of having links to armed groups. Observers fear that these militias will become more difficult to disarm once they gain the prestige and power of elected office.

However, some are optimistic that regional strongmen who relocate to Kabul to join the parliament will lose some of their regional power base, and more importantly, will choose to work within the confines of the new government.

"Yes, the bad guys did get in. Yes, there were a lot of irregularities. But this is about the process," says Roxanna Shapour, an analyst with the Afghan Reconstruction and Evaluation Unit in Kabul. "This is about people participating in democracy. It doesn't happen overnight. What's important is people experiencing the right to vote."

But others, including some of the new parliamentarians themselves, are less sanguine.

Image cleansing

Safia Sidiqi, who has been elected to represent Nangrahar Province, expects it to be difficult to work alongside some of her new colleagues. "They think they are the commanders of yesterday," she says. "I think some of them have 'candidated' themselves to legalize their situation, to wipe away their past crimes, and to clean their money."

By law, these commanders should have been disarmed months ago. And anyone having ties with militia groups should have been disqualified as a parliamentary candidate. But it is widely accepted among foreign observers and Afghans that many local warlords and their commanders are still armed and wield great influence upon their communities and regions.

Allegations of commanders intimidating voters, buying votes, and stuffing ballot boxes have led to almost daily protests in regional capitals and in Kabul. Election officials have sacked 50 of their own for fraud, and have thrown out what they believe are 680 spoiled ballot boxes.

But despite surviving two assassination attempts during her campaign, and still fearing for her life, Mrs. Sidiqi says she is optimistic that in parliament the strongmen will bow to pressure from back home to produce legislative results ensuring reconstruction and stability in their provinces. She says for many of the tainted commanders the Wolesi Jirga is an opportunity to start a new and cleaner record for themselves.

She says, "People want to be civilized and these commanders want to become civilized. People want improvement in their community."

Unfortunately she was unsure if her local strongman, Hazrat Ali, would take advantage of such an opportunity following his election to parliament.

According to a Human Rights Watch report published last year, Hazrat Ali, who was then the province's police chief, publicly threatened the organization's researchers after they criticized the commander. The researchers alleged Hazrat Ali was responsible for looting, sexual assaults against women and girls, and intimidation of critics by detaining them in his private jail.

But Ali's move to Kabul will put some distance between himself and his regional militia, which now makes up Nangrahar's police force.

It remains to be seen if the physical separation from his forces begins to erode his sway in Nangrahar, as happened with Ismail Khan, a commander in Herat who lost much influence after President Hamid Karzai relocated him to Kabul.

Karzai and parliament

Political analysts are divided over whether Mr. Karzai will be able to gain from the new parliament the backing needed to pass legislation born from his reconstruction agenda or even secure the necessary votes to confirm his cabinet choices.

Since last month's election the president has been working the phones to reach out to the members of the new legislative branch of government, according to his adviser, Kawun Kakar. While Mr. Karzai's traditional political allies are Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group, the Pashtuns, Mr. Kakar insists his boss, "is not a man who will be working with any particular group or any particular individuals."

"It's a challenge for Mr. Karzai," says Jawid Danishyar with the IHRC. "Karzai is a symbol for democracy. In parliament there are some representatives who will have a different idea about democracy."

Rather, democracy may be defined in the parliament by Islamic conservatives and former mujahedin leaders such as mullahs, warlords, and even a handful of former Taliban commanders and ministers.

"There are enough warlords or mullahs or mafia or drug mafia that they can create problems for the parliament if they unite," says Mir Ahmad Joyenda, a newly elected member of parliament from Kabul province. "Mr. Karzai will not be able to get the warlords out of parliament."

However, Mr. Joyenda and others suggest these representatives may not easily coalesce into a united block because of the ethnic and regional divisions that brought them to wage war against each other in the past.

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