Afghan parliament's rejection of cabinet may delay reforms for months

The Afghan parliament will soon begin a six-week break, then prepare for elections, leaving less-influential acting ministers to govern.

Farzana Wahidy/AP
Afghan parliament members vote during a debate in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday. Afghan parliament began voting on President Hamid Karzai's list of nominees for his new cabinet.

The Afghan Parliament’s surprise rejection of most of President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet picks could delay serious reforms of the weak Afghan government until the second half of 2010.

The vote this weekend to strike down 17 of Mr. Karzai’s 24 choices for ministers comes days before Parliament breaks for a six-week recess. When the members reconvene, they will spend another week or more vetting Karzai’s second choices. Shortly thereafter, the government will be focused on parliamentary elections slated for May 22.

The international community had hoped to move quickly past last year’s fraud-ridden presidential elections by pairing a new surge of foreign troops with a new push for a more effective Afghan government. Instead, the messy process – while a potentially positive step for democracy – threatens to delay governing.

“We were hoping that by early 2010 we might have a new cabinet and could move forward. But now in front of us we have a cabinet crisis and in a few months we will have issues with Parliamentary elections,” says Haroun Mir, an analyst with the Center for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul. “The likelihood of having another dysfunctional government for 2010 is very high right now.”

Important events ahead

In the interim period, ministries will be headed by acting ministers. Such ministers will not have the same clout to initiate new projects, causing delay on major decisions, says Ahmad Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan.

Mr. Nadery also worries the cabinet fight will peel away Afghan and international attention from the London Conference on Afghanistan later this month. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has billed the meeting as an effort “to match the increase in military forces with an increased political momentum.”

The other casualty of the cabinet fight could be efforts to ensure a smoother election this year than last, says Nadery.

Step forward for democracy?

Some members of Parliament, however, argue that the delay over the cabinet marks an important achievement for Afghan government.

“This is not the sign of political crisis, this is the sign of democracy, a sign that Parliament is there, and the president is not the only decisionmaker,” says Shukria Barakzai, a member of Parliament from Kabul.

The Afghan Parliament has rarely been able to rally its members in opposition to Karzai’s decisions, making it an ineffective check on the president’s powers. With this action, some MPs suggest that Parliament may be finding its footing as a more equal partner.

The most prominent nominee to be rejected was Ismail Khan, a warlord who wields considerable influence in western Afghanistan. In some cases such as his, MPs could argue the vote was about elevating merit over might, but overall there did not appear to be a unifying principle or faction behind the 17 rejections.

Instead, the seven ministers who were confirmed had the most in common. Most were already serving in the cabinet and most enjoyed international support.

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