Afghanistan’s Parliamentary Free-for-All

The World

It is difficult to shock anyone with Parliamentary shenanigans in Afghanistan these days. But even in a country with preternaturally low expectations, Wednesday’s session set a new standard for bad behavior.

Gender bias, ethnic tensions, and political divisions all came to a head in an ugly incident involving a female Pashtun parliamentarian, Nasima Niyazi, and Haji Mohammad Mohaqeq, an ethnic Hazara and the head of a Parliamentary Commission tasked with finding a solution to a month-long political crisis over electing a Speaker.

When Niyazi pressed Mohaqeq on the details of his plan, he told her that as a “simple school teacher” she should just sit and be quiet. The women in the chamber began to bang on their desks in protest. Niyazi replied with a considerable amount of heat: “I may be a simple school teacher, but at least I have never hammered nails into people’s heads!”

At that point all of Mohaqeq’s supporters got up and left the hall. They are refusing to go back until Niyazi apologizes for her remarks.

It would have been bad enough if it had ended there; but several reports from the Parliament describe an even more disgraceful scene outside, when Mohaqeq supporters surrounded Niyazi and threatened her with violence.

Understanding the explosive emotions triggered by this exchange requires a short lesson in Afghanistan’s recent history.

The Pashtuns and the Hazara have enmity stretching back centuries, but the freshest examples date from the brutal civil war of the early to mid-1990s.

There were atrocities on all sides, tales of cruelty lovingly nursed and added to over the years.

The Hazara, with some justification, accuse the Pashtuns of massacring thousands of their citizens. In addition to a well-documented and bloody rampage by Pashtun forces under the command of Abdulrab Rassoul Sayyaf in the Kabul neighborhood of Afshar in 1993, there were violent raids on Hazara areas by the Taliban, who were drawn mainly from the Pashtun ethnic group.

The Pashtuns, for their part, take delight in repeating tales of Hazara viciousness from the war years. Among the most common of these is the oft-repeated description of how the Hazara tortured their prisoners by driving nails into their heads, causing the victim to jerk uncontrollably. It was called “the Dance of Death”, and just about every Pashtun claims to have witnessed one.

So Mohaqeq’s walkout was about a whole lot more than the crisis over the Speaker, as messy as that has proved to be.

The legislature has been unable to elect a Speaker in nearly a month of debates and four rounds of elections. The government’s choice, the very same Sayyaf whose forces are reported to have massacred the Hazara, lost by a whisker in the first ballot, after energetic lobbying and, according to numerous accounts, liberal cash handouts by the executive branch. According to Parliament’s internal rules, he cannot stand again.

Since then, various stalling techniques have been employed to short-circuit all attempts to elect a new candidate. It looks like no one is going to be allowed to take the seat until the Parliamentarians amend the rules, and allow Sayyaf, who has been named as a war criminal by more than one human rights organization, to assume control.

The prospect does not thrill many Afghan hands.

“I can’t see much hope if Sayyaf becomes Speaker,” said one long-time observer of Afghanistan’s electoral politics.

Sayyaf, an ethnic Pashtun, is opposed by Younus Qanuni, the former Speaker, who is an ethnic Tajik and a prominent member of the oppositionist Hope and Change Coalition. The Tajiks and the Pashtuns have their own share of bad blood between them, and the Coalition’s head, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, was Hamid Karzai’s main rival in the 2009 presidential elections.

The deadlock has reached the point where both sides are allegedly pumping for an ethnic Uzbek to take the Speaker’s Chair. The Uzbeks are a small minority in Afghanistan, and an Uzbek Speaker presumably would not command enough political clout to make life uncomfortable for the larger ethnic groups.

That would be okay, except the Uzbek delegation has also declared itself offended and left the Parliament hall.

A new report issued by the esteemed Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) shows that faith in representative democracy is actually decreasing in the country in the wake of the fraud-tainted parliamentary elections last September, along with the protracted wrangling over the results that has followed.

After Wednesday’s session, it’s not hard to see why.

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