A significant step was taken on Sunday by 20 Afghan political groupings and factions in Kabul to sign a Democratic Charter and announce the formation of a cooperation and coordination council as a prelude to the political transition and presidential elections expected to be held in 2014. This initiative, in the works for weeks, aims to forge a consensus to strengthen democratic governance, assure free and fair elections and act as a pressure point on President Hamid Karzai to commit to electoral reforms and a legitimate process for a peaceful transfer of power when his term ends in less than two years.
While this step will be touted as a show of strong support for a constitutional order and democratic gains made since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, the initiative is also a reflection of deep-seated uncertainty and concern among elites about the political process leading to elections, which coincides with the end-of-mission date for NATO combat troops in 2014 -- and that uncertainty is compounded by weak governance plagued by corruption and dim prospects for reconciliation with diehard Taliban leaders.
Karzai has indicated that he will step down at the end of his second and last term, and intends to abide by the constitution, but his critics are not convinced and point to attempts by members of the president's inner circle to subvert or postpone elections.
Interestingly, the formation of the new council not only garnered the support of most loyal opposition groups, but was also endorsed by several factions that are part of Karzai's ruling coalition in government, including Hezb-i Wahdat under Vice President Karim Khalili, the Hezb-i Islami faction under the current Minister of Economy, A. Hadi Arghadewal, Jamiat-e Islami headed by Salahudin Rabbani (also head of the High Peace Council) , Mehaz-e Mili Islami under Pir S. Ahmad Gailani and Afghan Milat Party headed by current Minister of Commerce, Anwarul Haq Ahadi.
Other groupings and prominent leaders represented in the council - formally named the Cooperation Council of Afghan Political Parties and Alliances (CCAPPA) - include former presidential contender Dr. Abdullah Abdullah of the National Alliance, Hanif Atmar, former interior minister and head of the Right and Justice party, Ahmad Zia Massoud, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohamed Mohaqeq of the National Front, Ahmad Wali Massoud, and former chief of national intelligence, Amrullah Saleh.
Describing the country as unstable, insecure and facing "a deep crisis", council members support a political settlement to the on-going conflict. However, they stressed that a reconciliation process needs to be "Afghan-led, comprehensive, just and part of a political process that safeguards constitutional values."
They also expressed strong support for freedom of expression and social justice, as well as women's and minority rights. Fearing that the political system has created a "deepening fissure between the people and the government," they called for an inclusive system that enhances popular participation in the political life of the country.
Probably most significant of all, the council was able to agree on a common platform to deal with a host of election-related challenges that have created angst and heightened suspicions as a result of lukewarm approach to a reform agenda, and new appointments perceived as pre-election political consolidation by a lame duck president and his allies.
Karzai recently reshuffled and replaced 10 governors, a move seen by some as more political in essence than administrative. There are indications that a similar reshuffling may be announced soon, affecting several cabinet positions, part of the judiciary and heads of several key independent state commissions.
Furthermore, a recent comment by first Vice President Qaseem Fahim that elections will not be held at all if security conditions are not permitting, has ruffled feathers and put the opposition in an offensive mode.
The joint statement issued by the council on Sunday not only stressed on the "full independence and neutrality" of the Election (IEC) and Complaints Commissions (ECC), but also requested that measures be taken in order for 1.Elections to be held on time as stipulated by the Constitution; 2. A census to be completed and new national ID cards be issued on time; 3. Voter registration and lists be compiled and the voting system be computerized; 4. Assigning national and international election monitors; 5. Assuring security for elections and 6. Assuring non-interference in the electoral process.
On Monday, a day after the council was formed, the Lower House of parliament voted to reform legislation regulating IEC responsibilities, and allowed two international experts to sit as ECC commissioners, a setback for those who were opposed to international monitoring and adjudication.
With Karzai attending the UN General Assembly meeting in New York this week, he will be hard pressed once he returns to Kabul, either to agree with the demands, seek a compromise, reject them or, as has been the case in the past, ignore such recommendations.
But the buildup of pressure from numerous political heavyweights cannot be easily ignored this time around. The ball is now in Karzai's court, where two contending interest groups around the president - one made up of a small clique of reformists, and the other representing narrow ethnic and financial interests - are at odds over the way forward.
There is talk in Kabul's political bazaar of convening an all-Afghan national assembly to define the contours of a national agenda based on the country's vital interests before all sides engage in electoral contest. If agreed to by all major actors, this idea may constitute a step toward the normalization of relations between the presidential palace, parliament and the loyal opposition, and help level the playing field.
There is little chance, however, for the newly formed council to become a political coalition fielding a single candidate in 2014. Due to different political priorities and platform inconsistencies, the council may prove more useful as a pressure group aiming for electoral reform than as a political vehicle for contesting power.
Cognizant of this, Karzai may be tempted by the palace's narrow interest group to take a hard stance and avoid any compromise, while it uses its leverage through subversive tactics to create an un-even playing field. The prospects for such posturing will not only be detrimental to the political and reconciliation processes, but will also further complicate the NATO withdrawal and transition to a stable and secure Afghanistan.
Omar Samad is Senior Afghanistan Expert at USIP in Washington DC, and a former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada. The views expressed here are his own.
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