Hope and concern to the fore
Lawmakers who returned to work after the winter break – the start of the seventh year of this parliament – heard President Ashraf Ghani say fresh elections will be held in the next solar year.
"The preparations for holding the parliamentary elections have taken place and the obstacles on the way to holding it have been removed," the president said.
Elections are already two years overdue. Under the Constitution, Afghanistan's parliament has a five year term. But decisions on electoral reforms, which will pave the way for the holding of fresh elections not just to Parliament but also to district councils, are caught in a political tug-of-war.
Two presidential decrees on electoral reforms were rejected by lawmakers in Parliament. Some experts blame it on supporters of Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
The president's office has an option to push the reforms through by executive decree under Article 79 of the Afghan Constitution. The executive branch can bypass the legislative branch when Parliament is in recess or at times of national emergency.
But for now President Ghani has by decree only extended lawmakers' terms. That, however, has neither stopped questions about the legitimacy of the current Parliament nor stopped the sparring between the executive and legislature. On Tuesday, the opening day of Parliament, Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, speaker of the Wolesi Jirga since 2011, who spoke after President Ghani questioned the government's legitimacy.
The president promised transparent elections. "Neither do I have any intention of interfering in this national process nor would I give permission to others to interfere," he told lawmakers.
Abdul Qadeer Amin, political analyst, is all praise for what he says is the president's "decisiveness". "The decisiveness of the president in political and military fields is appreciated (at a time when) security and political fields are very vague (uncertain) and the Election Commission is not holding the elections, and (there is) lack of clarity about who are the national enemies (that) has created deep concern at all levels. The president's plain speaking has cleared most of the ambiguities," he says.
Fatema Roshan, a civil society activist, has also only praises for the president's address to Parliament. "If our leaders take action in national interest, through serious and decisive positions, they would be supported by whole nation and this would result in the increase of national strength," she says.
There are calls to support discussion and debate among all institutions of the government – the judiciary, executive and legislature – for a healthy, functioning democracy. Earlier Parliament and palace, the president's office, were at loggerheads, according to writer and journalist Mohammad Qarabaghi. "The two should work together in coordination as each other's arms," he believes.
The Afghan public is once more somewhat buoyed by events. Adela Omed, a resident of Kabul city, where security continues to be of concern, says talk of "launching national processes in political, security and economic fields have brought hopes alive to some extent" despite the obstacles like tension between political rivals, the self-interest of some lawmakers to hang on to power, and the worsening security situation.
According to civil society activist Abdul Ghafoor Akbari, apart from security concerns, problems that are holding up elections include delays in revising electoral lists and the issuing new national identity cards or tazkeras. Will things change?
Mohammad Shafiq who lives in a relatively insecure area of Qarabagh district in Ghazni province blames local officials for increasing "insecurities" that have nothing to do with armed conflict. "Their interference in the national process such as elections, getting gains (making money) from small rehabilitation projects all have been problems in this district," he says.
There is also concern about interference by high level government authorities. Mohammad Nayeem Ayubzada, head of Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan says, "The leaders of government of national unity interfere in the commissions; most of the commissioners do not have the required abilities. If the government continues to interfere we will make it public."
Political analyst Qarabaghi thinks that only when the current tribalism and discrimination are countered can transparent institutions shaped by the law and Constitution be built. People's faith in civil processes has been shaken by the undemocratic functioning of political representatives and officials, and also when their votes came to nought as in the presidential elections in 2014.
At the opening of Parliament, Ibrahimi, the speaker, said the continuation of the practice of "caretakers" as heads of government offices was lowering people's acceptance of the government. Under the Constitution, the government's nominees to the council of ministers have to be ratified by lawmakers. Several of the national unity government's appointees were rejected, but continue to function as "caretakers".
In Parliament, people's representatives criticised the government for not being able to ensure the security of lawmakers in the wake of the attack on March 4 on Helmand Member of Parliament (MP), Mir Wali, in Kandahar city.
The lawmaker who was taken to hospital came under fire from gunmen in the vicinity of the 10th police district of the city. A Taleban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack. Some three months ago, there was a coordinated attack on the MP's house in Kabul, which left several people dead including two members of his family.