Once-docile Afghan parliament stands up to Karzai and becomes an ally of U.S.

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 23, 2010

KABUL -- The Afghan parliament, long a bastion of dysfunction and docility, has emerged this spring as a robust check on President Hamid Karzai's power, giving the United States an unlikely ally as it tries to persuade the government here to clean up its act.

Although the United States and the parliament do not appear to be directly coordinating their strategies, their interests coincide. Both are pushing the increasingly erratic Karzai to become more accountable, to allow fair elections, and to reduce the corruption that has withered support for the government, feeding the Taliban's rise.

But unlike the United States, which had to retreat this month after public rebukes of Karzai backfired, many members of parliament say that openly defying the president makes for good election-year politics.

In recent months, the parliament has rejected Karzai's budget, much of his cabinet and, most important, his proposal to overhaul the nation's election law. Karzai's proposed changes would have, among other things, given him control of a commission assigned to investigate fraud allegations. The United States, the United Nations and many Afghans viewed the proposal as an attempted power grab and were relieved when the lower house of parliament voted overwhelmingly against it. Even Karzai's staunch supporters defied him, waving red cards to signify their opposition to the president's maneuver.

"We were all surprised at the unanimity of opinion in the lower house," said one Western diplomat. "It's really unprecedented."

Despite the vote, Karzai had insisted that his version of the law take effect. But on Saturday, he backed down, agreeing to a compromise with the United Nations under which two of five members of the fraud commission will be foreigners, with each given veto power over commission decisions. Karzai also appointed a chief election commissioner who is seen as more independent than his predecessor.

The changes are important because Afghans are due at the polls in just five months for the country's first parliamentary elections since 2005. Karzai's critics say his original election law proposal would have enabled him to stock the parliament with allies and further consolidate authority in a government that lacks rival centers of influence. They say that after the fraud-marred presidential vote last year, the country's fragile democracy would not survive similarly tainted parliamentary elections.

"The parliamentary election is a matter of life and death in terms of democracy in Afghanistan," said Mirwais Yasini, the parliament's deputy speaker and a losing candidate in the presidential vote.

Yasini said he was pleased with the compromise reached Saturday. But parliament members remain wary of possible attempts by Karzai and his allies to try to rig the outcome of the elections.

A powerful president

Despite Afghanistan's long history of decentralized power, the constitution that the United States helped craft for the post-Taliban era gives the president vast sway at all levels of government. That has caused problems for the Obama administration as it has become disenchanted with Karzai and has sought unsuccessfully to work around him.

Afghanistan's ministers, governors and district chiefs all ultimately answer to the president, giving Washington little leverage in Afghanistan when Karzai chooses not to cooperate with U.S. plans. The parliament, however, is relatively independent. Karzai appoints some members of the upper house but has no direct authority over those in the more influential lower house, who are popularly elected.

Until now, the parliament was more notorious than influential, rarely challenging the president and gaining notice only for its unorthodox legislation. Last year, it passed a law that requires minority Shiite women to seek permission from their husbands before leaving the home and to submit to their husbands' sexual demands unless ill or menstruating.

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