Afghan Assembly Picks Opponent of President as Leader

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld pledges continued support for Afghanistan at a joint news conference with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld pledges continued support for Afghanistan at a joint news conference with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. (By Jim Young -- Associated Press)
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 22, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 21 -- The lower house of Afghanistan's new parliament elected a leading opposition figure as its speaker Wednesday, raising the prospect of a divided government just two days after the country inaugurated its first legislature in more than three decades.

Yonus Qanooni, who finished second to Hamid Karzai in last year's presidential race, won the speakership over factional commander Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf on a razor-close 122 to 117 vote. Now, after four years of governing without a legislature, Karzai will face the challenge of sharing power with his chief rival for national leadership.

In the parliament itself, members from virtually every point on the political spectrum will be dealing with a long list of contentious issues, including the U.S. role here, the legal weight of Islam, official corruption and opium poppy cultivation. The largest bloc of members are war veterans, many of whom spent years fighting each other. With 68 women in the lower house, the sensitive issue of women's rights may also arise.

A first test of relations between Karzai and Qanooni, who also represent different ethnic groups, could come in the next few weeks as parliament begins to review Karzai's cabinet choices. Qanooni has criticized some, as have other legislators who came to office vowing to improve public performance in security, jobs and drug eradication.

After Qanooni's victory on Wednesday, though, both men were conciliatory.

"I will not be in opposition to the government," Qanooni said. "What has happened in the past, we should forget that. We should think about the future of Afghanistan."

Karzai spokesman Karim Rahimi called Qanooni's selection a "very positive step. . . . He is a very capable man, and we think in the future there will be very good cooperation between the cabinet and the parliament."

The rift between the two men is well documented. In June 2003, Karzai shifted Qanooni from the powerful post of interior minister to the less influential position of education minister. A year later, Qanooni left government and ran against Karzai for president. Official results showed he came in a distant second, but he has made allegations of fraud.

"There is some bitterness on the part of Qanooni," said Musa Maroofi, a professor of law and politics at Kabul University. "But he is also a very responsible and shrewd politician. He knows he should not inject his personal feelings in the business of the nation."

Despite their differences, Karzai and Qanooni are well-educated political moderates in a country in which both Islamic scholars and communist figures have significant followings.

Sayyaf, who was Qanooni's main opponent for speaker, is a hard-line Islamic scholar and former militia leader who has been accused by human rights groups of war crimes against minority ethnic Hazaras during internecine fighting in the 1990s.

In a move that showed just how transient Afghan alliances can be, former Hazara commander Mohammed Mohaqeq threw his support behind Sayyaf on the eve of Wednesday's vote. Ultimately, Sayyaf came up just short after Qanooni received the crucial backing of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

The voting was orderly, with officials publicly counting and recounting the votes during a process that took the entire day.

"It was very peaceful and there was transparency," Sayyaf said following his defeat. "I congratulate Mr. Qanooni."

On Tuesday, the less powerful upper house of parliament elected a moderate religious figure and Karzai backer, Sibghatullah Mojadidi, as its leader. The process there was more disorganized, with the session devolving into a free-for-all debate after Mojadidi won only a plurality of the votes.

In the lower house on Tuesday, Malalai Joya, 27, an outspoken female legislator, was shouted down when she tried to read a statement condemning the presence of warlords and other human rights abusers in the body. She walked out of parliament on Wednesday.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company