Afghan cabinet woes raise wider government concern

KABUL Wed Jan 20, 2010 9:52am EST

KABUL (Reuters) - The first time parliament threw out most of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's cabinet nominees it was hailed as a triumph for democracy. The second time it looked more like a victory for chaos, conservatism and graft.

Afghanistan desperately needs a functioning government to start improving services and staunch a growing disillusionment with Kabul that boosts support for insurgents. Violence is at its highest since the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001.

But instead there has been months of political limbo as the country waited first for a delayed presidential election, then for the result of that fraud-marred poll to be settled, and finally for Karzai, the eventual winner, to chose a government.

Seventeen of the 24 candidates on his first slate were vetoed in a surprise show of lawmakers political muscle. Another seven were approved from a second list -- leaving him with 11 ministerial posts still open, including major portfolios such as public health.

The cabinet disarray has raised questions about whether the institutions put in place by Afghanistan's constitution are a strong enough underpinning for a modern state.

Parliament is influenced by an unpredictable mix of principles, greed and politics, while Karzai is apparently unable to harness his own political skills or reserves of cash and patronage opportunities, to seal the deals that are key to governance of a country he is trying to wrest back from insurgents.

"The mixed result of the Wolesi Jirga (lower house) vote of 16 January reflects a basic weakness of Afghanistan's post-Taleban state institutions: their lack of structure," Thomas Ruttig wrote in an article on the Afghanistan Analysts Network (www.aan-afghanistan.com).

"The parliamentarians oscillate between democratic self-assertion and the temptations of bakhshishs offered -- either gifts in cash or the promise of the ministers-to-be to give posts to relatives and allies."

WHO WANTS WHAT?

Fractured along ethnic, religious, ideological and patronage lines, the lower house has no formal party groupings so even powerful warlords struggled, or failed, to gather the votes needed to push their candidates through parliament.

For years this has suited Karzai, allowing him to rule with little real check on his powers from lawmakers, or need to court parliament. But now the limited links between the executive and legislative branches have left both sides stranded.

Neither seems entirely clear about what they want or how to go about getting it, and the president looks particularly weak.

After the election he promised a fresh start. The London conference, held in just over a week, was meant to provide a launching pad for his new, cleaner government.

"It's certainly going to reflect poorly on the ability of Karzai to pull together a team," said Minna Jarvenpaa, former head of Analysis and Planning in the U.N.'s Afghanistan mission.

"It has taken a few months now and even the London conference deadline hasn't been able to catalyse the completion of the cabinet," she added.

WOMEN NOT WANTED

One thing that did bring conservative lawmakers together was suspicion of the female ministerial candidates. Karzai put forward a record three names, but only one was approved.

"There is a bad feeling in the parliament against those women who are well educated and have served in non-governmental organizations," said Shinkai Karookhel, a lawmaker and a sister of the candidate for Women's Affairs Minister, Palwasha Hassan.

Questions asked in nomination hearings for Hassan -- a well known activist vetoed even by some female parliamentarians and who received the lowest tally of positive votes of all the candidates -- give a sense of some lawmakers' agendas.

"How will you ensure there is balance between ... not too much freedom for women but still (giving them) rights under law," one MP asked, according to a translation made by a women's network.

Corruption added to the confusion. In the days running up to the second vote there were gatherings at houses of Kabul dignitaries where fleets of cars with blacked-out windows disgorged members of parliament and cabinet candidates.

Inside they enjoyed elaborate dinners and individual meetings with nominees, government sources said.

Lack of budget and workspace, the need to reclaim expensive campaign costs, and the demands of friends and relatives for jobs and favors can make graft hard to resist.

"Unfortunately, some delegates are paying more attention to their pockets than to Afghanistan's future," said lawmaker Sardar Ahmad Ughli.

(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Bill Tarrant) (For more on the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan click here)

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