Afghanistan election: Why the next parliament won't check Karzai's power

The results of Saturday's Afghanistan election aren't expected for days, but because the parliamentary candidates ran as individuals, not as party members, they are unlikely to unite in opposition to President Hamid Karzai.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Afghan President Hamid Karzai displays his inked finger after casting his vote, as he speaks to media at a polling station in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday. Results will take a few days, but the next parliament isn't likely to unite against President Karzai.

Afghanistan's election on Saturday was tarnished by attacks that killed at least 12 people, reports of fraud, and a light turnout. Still, whichever parliamentary candidates end up victorious once results finally trickle in will play a role in the coming scrum for power as international forces draw down over the five-year term ahead.

Specifically, President Hamid Karzai could try to dodge his term limit or step up negotiations with the Taliban in an effort to retain power. Also in the mix will be a decision over long-term basing rights for American troops.

These issues are of intense interest to fractious opposition forces and outside governments alike, many of whom have serious doubts about fully trusting Mr. Karzai's judgment. They are hoping that the next parliament – which won't be sorted out and seated for months – will become a more effective check on Afghanistan's executive branch.

In Pictures: Afghanistan election

But the new parliament is unlikely to be a strong check on Karzai, because the candidates mostly ran as individuals rather than under the banner of parties or the disorganized opposition movement.

"I believe that the next parliament, unfortunately, will be even weaker than the current one," says Sabrina Saqib, a member of Parliament from Kabul. "Because we are all running as individuals, it's very easy to buy MPs, to deal with them, when we are individuals."

She decided not to stand for the new parliament because it would once again be 249 members each working alone, thereby getting little done.

Afghan political parties are mostly irrelevant, having been largely discredited during the initial decades of the Afghan conflict.

Karzai, meanwhile, has no party but has the apparatus of government, with which he could influence votes – legally and illegally. His family also controls major businesses like the troubled Kabul Bank, allowing him indirect avenues through which to financially support pliant MPs.

To be sure, other players put money into the election for disparate reasons.

Iran appeared to be actively donating to candidates, probably looking for help opposing permanent US base agreements on its doorstep, says Ms. Saqib.

Businessmen are not all in league with Karzai – some are apparently frustrated with his family's control of the business landscape. Malalai Ishaq Zai, a vocal critic of Karzai's half-brother in Kandahar, says she is receiving support from various businessmen there.

But broader-based unhappiness with the government and its secretive outreach to the Taliban have so far not been effectively channeled into a coherent opposition movement.

Saqib supported Abdullah Abdullah during his challenge to Karzai for the presidency last year. When he lost, Dr. Abdullah promised to work for a national opposition movement.

But Saqib became disillusioned.

"I said goodbye to Abdullah," says Saqib. "I told Dr. Abdullah that 'I joined your team because … we know where we are going to, with whom, how.' That was for [the presidential] election. The election is over, and I can't see such plan. I don't know where we are going."

She says that a European government had been interested in financially supporting Abdullah's movement as a way to foster healthy democratic opposition.

But a diplomat from that country told her privately that interest faded when Abdullah failed to offer any plan or goals, but said he could do little since he had no money.

In a press conference before the Sept. 18 election, Abdullah said his movement supported around 300 of some 2,500 candidates. He said his group could not support them financially, but did help them fundraise and organize.

"We have just laid the foundation for the National Alliance for Change and Hope. That's very young," he said.

His deputy, Homayoun Shah Assefy, emphasized that the young movement was not a political party with narrow ideologies, but a big tent for everyone wanting change. "It will take time to have all of our friends vote in the same way," says Mr. Assefy.

The slow pace of Abdullah's movement is spawning competitors for the opposition mantle.

"There is no address for political opposition in Kabul," says Haroun Mir, an analyst-turned-candidate from Kabul. "A year has passed. Can we afford to wait another year or two when we all know the fate of Afghanistan will be decided in the next couple of years?"

Mr. Mir is running under the umbrella of Amrullah Saleh, the former head of Afghanistan's intelligence agency. Mr. Saleh fell out with Karzai over the president's warming relations with Pakistan and the Taliban leadership, and is trying to start his own opposition movement.

Mir says such opposition needs to be built before international forces pull out so that there will be some group with a real political base to sit down opposite the Taliban.

"If tomorrow the international community decides we will move toward a political settlement, who would be able to represent the majority of Afghan people who are opposed to the Taliban? There is no voice for them," says Mir.

"Are we offering an exit strategy for the Taliban," he asks, "or are the Taliban offering an exit strategy for President Karzai or the US?"

At the moment, Western governments are signaling they want a stronger check on the president – a change from their initial preferences, codified in the Constitution, for a strong executive.

"The argument that it's good to have one person to deal with is how the Constitution was set up in 2004," says William Maley, an Afghanistan expert at Australian National University in Canberra. "The problems with having Karzai be that person have become palpable at this point."

In Pictures: Afghanistan election

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