Fraud Ruling Throws Afghan Parliament Into Disarray
President Obama's announcement last week that U.S. troops will begin leaving Afghanistan this summer has prompted questions about whether the country's democracy can stand on its own.
Those questions come as the Afghan government has been thrown into disarray. A tribunal appointed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai has revoked 25 percent of the seats awarded last September, reviving a dispute over the parliamentary elections.
It took months after last year's elections to seat the Afghan Parliament, with credible allegations of fraud disqualifying many candidates. Intense pressure from the United States and the United Nations helped seat the body, but Karzai still had one more card to play. His special tribunal pronounced that 62 members of Parliament would be replaced on fraud charges.
Sitting members of Parliament made a mute protest of the announcement, slapping their desks as the speaker asked them to welcome the new results. As the session let out, Fowzia Kufi, a representative from northern Badakshan province, said Karzai is trying to neutralize one of the few checks on his executive power.
"The strategy is to reduce the power of democratic institution, which could bring a check and balance on the fraud, the corruption," Kufi says. "They're trying to make the Parliament as weak as they could."
Kufi admits that Parliament has been weak so far, in part because Karzai's special tribunal was a sword hanging over their heads: Many feared they could be removed and have been hesitant to challenge the president. She says the tribunal is not constitutional and undermines Afghanistan's fragile democracy.
"It will fuel insecurity and give legitimacy to the Taliban to go to the villages and say democracy doesn't work in Afghanistan," she says.
Of course, many of the allegations of fraud were credible, and Karzai's ruling was a victory for some candidates who had claimed for months that they had been robbed of their seats. Daud Sultanzoi, from Ghazni province, was granted a seat by the tribunal.
"We took the matter to the courts, to the rule of law, and we wanted the rule of law to take decision, not the rule of jungle and not the bullets," Sultanzoi says. "This is a very proud moment for the people of Afghanistan."
Sultanzoi compared the tribunal's ruling to the way the U.S. Supreme Court decided the presidential contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush.
But there is great controversy over whether Karzai had the authority to create the tribunal, which he says supersedes Afghanistan's electoral bodies. The president's spokesman, Waheed Omar, refused to speculate about how the constitutional question would be resolved, but delivered a stern warning that the international community should not interfere.
"It's important that we uphold the constitution here in Afghanistan and that can only happen if the state institutions in Afghanistan are allowed to look for a resolution and that nobody else outside the state institutions makes judgments or references, or issues verdicts as to what is right and what is wrong," Omar said.
But MPs say Karzai is trying to paralyze the Parliament by keeping the dispute going. They fear Karzai is clearing obstacles away from his goal of changing the constitution to allow him a third term.
As for international interference, one MP said it's the only thing keeping Afghan democracy on track. Democracy here will end, he said, the moment the last foreign soldier leaves the country.