One of the chief weaknesses of President Hamid Karzai's administration in Afghanistan is that its authority does not extend across the entire country. It is ironic, then, that one of Karzai's main challengers in Afghanistan's upcoming presidential election asserts that the incumbent has too much power concentrated in his hands.
Speaking at an April 20 security conference, Abdullah Abdullah -- a former Afghan foreign minister and himself a presidential hopeful in the August election -- complained that Afghanistan's current security woes can be attributed in part to the marginalization of forces that played an instrumental role in resisting both Soviet occupation and Taliban rule.
"Those who played a role in bringing security" in earlier years should have a say in the present security debates, Abdullah asserted. Instead, Karzai in recent years has managed to consolidate authority in his hands, and has succeeded in pushing out those individuals and forces that could provide checks on his authority. The current governmental decision-making process is so centralized that "even the smallest decisions have to go to the president's office," Abdullah said.
Abdullah should know. He was part of the team that took over in Kabul after a US-led blitz toppled the Taliban. His influence stemmed from the fact that he was a leader of the Northern Alliance, which provided most of the armed resistance to the Taliban only to see its influence wane dramatically in recent years.
The need to strike a new balance in Afghanistan's still nascent democratic system seems to be one of the emerging themes of the presidential campaign. But as Abdullah and others are finding, fixing perceived flaws in the system will not be easy. As Karzai critics now see it, the United States and European Union miscalculated during the 2001 Bonn Conference, which created the country's existing political framework and launched the process of drafting a new constitution.
Back then, the United States reportedly pushed strongly for the creation of a powerful presidency -- apparently believing that a strong chief executive would offer the best way to promote stability in the strife-torn country. Over time, however, Karzai's administration has proven ineffectual in combating corruption, and the consensus among democratization advocates has shifted -- to the point where some policy-makers in the West reportedly now wish that stronger checks and balances on presidential authority had been built into the Afghan system.
In March, the British daily The Guardian reported that US officials were keen to create the post of prime minister in the Afghan government structure as a way of counter-balancing Karzai's influence. But in an interview with EurasiaNet, a US government spokesman denied that Washington had any such plans.In any event, introducing the post of prime minister at this point would be a difficult task. Afghanistan's Constitution currently does not provide for that post and thus would require amending. While amendments can be introduced by a majority in parliament, the commission that approves amendments, and the Loya Jirga, or grand tribal council, which ratifies constitutional changes, both require presidential assent, as does the final endorsement of the amendments. Any sitting president, not just Karzai, would seem unlikely to support a measure that would considerably dilute his (or potentially her) presidential authority.
In addition, any perception that the United States supports the creation of the prime ministerial post would, at this stage, seem a sure way of squashing all hopes of it ever becoming reality. Most Afghans are convinced that Washington wants to influence the election's outcome, despite Washington's insistence that it is neither supporting nor opposing any candidate. Within Afghanistan, anti-foreigner sentiment, especially anti-American sentiment, may well turn out to be a major factor in the presidential election.
The question of checks and balances is just one of the complexities of the Afghan system that is exerting influence on the presidential campaign. One other major issue is the matter of individual influence in politics, and the lack of well-organized political parties.
Afghanistan's electoral law poses obstacles to the involvement of political parties in the presidential campaign. As a result, the campaign's outcome hinges on not necessarily the articulation of policy programs, but on back-room deals made by power brokers -- a process that appears to be currently underway.
For example, to blunt Abdullah's criticism, Karzai loyalists announced on April 21 that another leader of the Northern Alliance, Mohammad Fahim, was formally endorsing the incumbent for reelection. The announcement thus exposed a split in the National Front, the main political opposition group in the country.
Yet another intricacy of this presidential election revolves around citizenship. Some of those who aspire to the Afghan presidency now find themselves in a position of first having to reaffirm their Afghan citizenship. One such presidential hopeful is Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist who also served as Afghanistan's finance minister from 2002-2004. Ghani is currently in the United States, where he is in the midst of revoking his US citizenship. According to his office here in Kabul, Ghani intends to return to Afghanistan on an Afghan passport.
The citizenship hurdle confronted by Ghani and others is connected with Afghanistan's legacy of three-plus decades of foreign occupation and civil strife. Over that time, more than 8 million Afghans became refugees, with most finding safe havens in Pakistan and Iran. A privileged few, including Ghani, migrated to the West, where they acquired US and European citizenship.
Ghani's citizenship did not prevent him from serving as finance minister, but the constitution expressly forbids the chief executive from being a citizen of any other country. Ministers are appointed, not elected, and the prerogative of vetting the qualifications of a ministerial nominee rests with the Wolesi Jirga, or the lower house of parliament. In presidential contests, the Independent Election Commission has the responsibility of ensuring that candidates meet all constitutional requirements.
The commission's deputy chief, Zekria Barakzai, told EurasiaNet that the IEC will strictly interpret the constitution on the citizenship issue. "They [candidates] have to provide proof of revoking their citizenship (of another country), and the proof must state that they have already annulled the citizenship," Barakzai said. The requirement will affect not only Ghani, but several other contenders including the former interior minister, Ali Ahmed Jalali, who was born in Afghanistan in 1940, but subsequently acquired American citizenship.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 18 years.