Last weekend marked a milestone for Afghanistan's Parliament that should have been cause for celebration: It's been a year since Afghans braved the threat of insurgent violence to go to the polls to pick a new legislature.
But a dispute over election results has smoldered between President Hamid Karzai and lawmakers ever since. And the resulting gridlock has prevented the new Parliament from passing a single notable law, confirming any of the president's ministers, or giving any oversight to the president or his Cabinet.
On a recent day, just outside the security gates at Afghanistan's Parliament in west Kabul, a small group of constituents was crowding around Ramazan Bashardost, a member of Parliament from Kabul. It was old-fashioned representative democracy in action.
Bashardost is a rarity in Afghanistan, with a reputation for direct contact with the public. For years, he pitched a tent across the highway from the Parliament building and welcomed all comers and listened to their woes. He writes down names and says he'll look into specific problems, but Bashardost is candid about the record of Parliament, or Wolesi Jirga, at getting anything done.
"The only thing that the Afghan Wolesi Jirga in one year did, it was their salary. They asked to add 31,000 Afghanis ($640) more to their salary," he says.
To be fair, it was difficult for Parliament to make significant decisions, since the exact results of the vote are still a matter of controversy. It began with an election day when threats of insurgent violence closed many polling stations.
After authorities spent months tabulating and disqualifying irregular ballots, the results did not favor Karzai's Pashtun ethnic group. Critics say that's why Karzai set up a special tribunal to re-examine the election.
Parliament bristled at what it saw as an overreach by the president. Since then, lawmakers have been too preoccupied with whether they might lose their seats to make any laws.
Most days, a number of Parliament members show up at work, passing through metal detectors and checking their handguns in lockers before entering the small courtyard between the higher and lower houses of the legislature.
The politicians mingling on the commons are mostly divided into two factions over the ongoing election dispute. Karzai's special tribunal originally ruled that 62 legislators should be replaced; that number has now, after debate, come down to just nine.
A group of 70 parliamentarians, calling themselves the Rule of Law coalition, say changing even those nine seats is illegal. Another group — called the reformers — says it's not worth holding up the legislature over just nine seats. But both groups agree their record so far this year is abysmal.
A Government With Only One Branch
Nader Khan Katawazai represents Paktika, in eastern Afghanistan.
"It's gotten to a point where the government calls the Parliament illegitimate and the Parliament calls the executive illegitimate, so it's a deadlock," he says, wearing an enormous green silk turban typical of his Pashtun province.
Katawazai says Parliament has disappointed the public.
"Yes, it's been one year and there's nothing I can really tell you about the Parliament's achievement; we haven't really done anything," he says.
Katawazai says Afghanistan hardly has the time to waste, with many pressing matters that legislators should be taking up.
Western diplomats and the United Nations have put pressure on Karzai to accept the Parliament and get on with business. But Asadullah Sayadati, a parliamentarian from central Daikundi province, says the international community should be doing more to confront what has become a government with only one branch.
"It raises a question, for me personally, what are you doing in Afghanistan? If you're not supporting democracy, if you're not supporting democratic institutions of the country, then why are you here?" he says.
Sayadati hastens to add that he doesn't want the international forces to leave — at least not until Afghanistan's democracy looks a little more stable.
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