By Chayanika Saxena
The birth pangs of democracy can be painful and last many days, even months, as the case of Afghanistan’s political scenario has come to show. The initial, tumultuous struggle apart, the formation of cabinet in Afghanistan continues to be in jeopardy, impacting the country on all its fronts. Added to which, the increasing attacks on civilian life in Afghanistan has left the country bewildered about the fledgling present that many fear might become its future as well.
The cabinet at the centre in Afghanistan is far from taking shape. Where it had already taken the Unity Government more than a hundred days for declaring the list of its ministerial hopefuls, most of the berths continue to remain unoccupied. Amid rumours about ministerial positions being handed over to the leaders of Taliban, only a few ministerial portfolios (eight+ one National Directorate of Security) have been granted their takers after their approval from the 250 strong Wolesi Jirga. Names were taken down on grounds of dual citizenship, inadequate educational qualifications and some for reasons that have been cited as ‘voluntary withdrawals’.
The international circles too are abuzz with news of uncertainty that looms large over the political establishment in Kabul, shaking their confidence in the civilian government even more. In such circumstances, it will neither be hasty nor unreasoned to conclude that a debilitating political balance will spell derailment for the economy and society of Afghanistan.
A gloomy boding for the future of Afghanistan is not without its proof. Languishing for factors that can be roughly classified into (overlapping) essential, instrumental and constitutional reasons, the cabinet formation in Afghanistan has been both the cause and the consequence of intense political confrontations. The cooks of this potpourri are just too many, and to top that, are equipped with their own set of spices that none are willing to compromise on.
Beginning with the ‘politics of essential’, the ethnic faultlines in Afghanistan are yet to disappear from the ground; and, they may never either, considering that democracy has a tendency of carving niches out of socio-economic and political cleavages. Although not unparalleled, yet the ethnic diversity in Afghanistan is an antagonised and militarised lot. The experience of heavily armed clashes in the last three decades, with hordes of civilian casualty has created enemies of camps-that-are-not-like-us. As a result, the choice of ministerial candidates has been clouded by inter-ethnic rivalries. The absence of Nuristanis from the proposed cabinet; the snubbing of the Heratis that was questioned in a warning tone by their old patriarch, Ismail Khan; the dismayed Hazaras are some of the many instances when ethnicity came in the way of effective political functioning .
If the present day National Unity government is anything to go by, its purported relevance in mitigating ethnic frictions has not been realized. The claimed prudence involved in the manufacturing of a united front has been trounced by attempts of internal hacking that continue to happen along ethnic lines. In fact, the past of this coalition, which it is not willing to leave behind, is a testimony of the internationally induced, artificially constructed ethnic bonhomie. This arranged marriage may thus, have a tough time in managing its domestic affairs with all the conflicts its two sides are themselves bringing to the table.
Undeniably, the not-so-invisible-hand of economics too is working behind the operation and aggravation of ethnic differences. The course of the three-decade long clashes in Afghanistan allowed many of the presently dissatisfied forces to create their regional coteries. For all the centralization that is being imposed from the top in Afghanistan, not a lot has trickled down to the regional and district levels. In fact, the appearance of the authority at the centre in the past, if not wholly in the present, has been oxymoronically centripetally centrifugal — where there is a consequent rush towards the centre from different directions, but with little intention for consolidation. The distance from power continues to be measured from the different regional points to the centre and not significantly the other way around.
The regions, which are roughly distributed into West (Herat), North (Mazar) and South (Kandahar), are still controlled by people who have the economic lifelines, crucially the highways and poppy production, in their grip. Many have doubled up as major realty owners that allow greater penetration into the locales of these regions to which the centre will take long to reach. In these conditions, the decision on the ministerial portfolios is bound to turn into a battleground for the replaying of economic and ethnic rivalries.
Essentially for the good of democracy, but the checks and balances placed in the constitution are being manipulated by the interplay of these economic and ethnic factors. The Constitution of Afghanistan (2004) under a combination of Chapters (3, 4 and 5) and articles (64 and 71) gives Wolesi Jirga the ultimate authority to ratify and approve the candidates nominated for the 25 (at present) cabinet portfolios by the president. As the Lower House of the National Assembly, the members of this Jirga are elected from the district councils, with no party affiliations. Not outlawing political formations as such, however, candidates run as individual contestants to (theoretically) reduce ethnic factionalism — which on the ground hardly translates into anything. In the absence of a party whip and a secret ballot sealing the fate of the hopeful ministerial candidates, a lot of ‘lobbying’ emerges as a result.
Claims have been mounted in the past about horse-trading, bribery and other sorts of money and muscle flexing for getting the ministers of choice onto the cabinet. And, while the present situation does not cry foul as much, these acts have not vanished from the sight either. Also, as the Wolesi Jirga will be up for polls in the coming months, the situation is bound to get messier. In the hope of getting re-elected, the sitting MPs would have to make choices, raise demands and clamour for what they believe will influence their voter base. At the same time, they are also bound to look for sources that will cushion their possible failure too.
A combination of the above mentioned factors has made cabinet-formation in Afghanistan quite an uphill task. The political tussles that have been on for months now, have left people impatient and wanting for what they were promised, if not more. The manipulation of ethnic, economic and constitutional factors is slowly converting the enthusiasm that surrounded elections into exasperation with the system.
(Chayanika Saxena is a Research and Teaching fellow at Ashoka University, Sonepat. she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)