Political Landscape

Parliament Kicks Out Ministers Again: A multi-dimensional power struggle


A group of people seated around the table, headed by president Ghani.

President Ghani and CO Abdullah met with MPs on 12 November 2016 and suggested they postpone the remaining estizah sessions. The MPs declined. Photo: Pajhwok

The Afghan parliament’s lower house has sacked seven ministers in a new wave of interpellations (estizah). It is not clear who instigated the estizah motions, MPs themselves or Palace intrigue, or who will come out as the winner (the president has told the ministers to stay in their posts and called on the Supreme Court to reverse the MPs decisions). But the affair shows that the long-standing conflict between the two camps within the government is far from over. The estizah affair is compounded by additional rifts within the Jamiat party and the long-standing conflict between the executive and parliament. Thomas Ruttig (with input from Ehsan Qaane and Salima Ahmadi) looked into the various levels of conflicts and concludes that another painful process of appointments – and wrangling over them – could be restarted, further bogging down the government.

[This article has been corrected on 21 November 2016 on the forthcoming budget-related proceedings in both houses of parliament – in the last part of the text.]

Seven ministers voted off

The Wolesi Jirga, the Afghan parliament’s lower house, voted seven members of the cabinet out of office last week. MPs scrutinised 16 ministers in five sessions held every day, an unusual although not unique pace of work (a 17th minister who was on the original list had already resigned for – genuine – health reasons and was exempted). Usually, the Wolesi Jirga only convenes on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays and struggles to reach a quorum (see AAN analysis here and here), but for these sessions over 200 out of the current 235 MPs participated in each one.

The procedure is called estizah (interpellation) and the power of the MPs to deliver such motions to call ministers to account is enshrined in the constitution. Use of that power, however, has often proved detrimental to government; it has regularly interrupted both the work of the cabinet and parliament itself (which could have devoted its time to more urgent legislative matters). For the National Unity Government (NUG), which took a painstaking two years to establish a full cabinet that finally completed in June 2016, this is the second estizah round this year. The previous motion, against the women’s affairs minister, Delbar Nazari, in July 2016, failed. The government had also managed to get its security minister candidates through parliament relatively smoothly, in April and June 2016, and it had looked as if MPs had become tired of toppling ministers – prematurely, it seems now.

Officially, this time the MPs called those ministers to account who had not been able to spend more than 70 per cent of their ministries’ development budget for the financial year of 1394 (2015). (Afghanistan’s budget consists of two parts, the budget for running costs and the development budget for all other projects and investments.) This was not a first: in 2013, during the last year of President Hamed Karzai’s era, 11 ministers came under estizah for the same reason. However, this time the ministers were voted out of office for this reason (in 2013 all survived). The threshold was different this time: while in 2013, all ministers that had spent 50 per cent or less of their development budgets were summoned, this was now increased to 70 per cent. (1)

On the evening of 12 November, after the first estizah session, in which all three ministers were voted off – Salahuddin Rabbani for Foreign Affairs, Mahmud Balegh for Public Works and Nasrin Oryakhel for Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled – the government intervened for the first time. The president and the Chief Executive invited the MPs to send a delegation to discuss the situation and suggested that they suspend the summoning of the ministers. The MPs accepted the invitation but declined to postpone the estizah sessions.

The president then called an emergency cabinet meeting on 14 November 2016 and turned to the Supreme Court with a query as to the legality of the estizah (see here, here and here). In 2007, then President Karzai had asked the court for a similar judgment, after parliament had fired his foreign minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta after he had unable to block the deportation of a huge number of Afghan refugees from Iran; the court declared the parliamentary decision invalid and Spanta continued in his job. It can be safely assumed that Ghani is hoping for a similar outcome.

The cabinet meeting was attended by both the president and chief executive, the latter after a long absence due to disagreements with Ghani. The president instructed the dismissed ministers to continue their work until the Supreme Court’s verdict. As a result, starting on 13 November 2016, the votes in Parliament were taken in the absence of the ministers concerned.

Ministers who lost the votes of confidence:

  • Salahuddin Rabbani, Foreign Affairs (12 November); nominated by Abdullah
  • Mahmud Balegh, Public Works, (12 November), nominated by Ghani
  • Nasrin Oryakhel, Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled (12 November), nominated by Ghani
  • Assadullah Hanif Balkhi, Education (13 November), nominated by Abdullah
  • Muhammadullah Batash, Transport and Civil Aviation (13 November), nominated by Ghani
  • Farida Momand Higher Education (14 November), nominated by Ghani
  • Abdul Razeq Wahidi, Telecommunication (15 November), nominated by Abdullah

Ministers who secured the votes of confidence:

  • Eklil Hakimi, Finance (13 November), nominated by Ghani
  • Sayed Sadat Mansur Naderi, Urban Development (14 November), nominated by Ghani
  • Abdul Basir Anwar, Justice (14 November), nominated by Abdullah
  • Assadullah Zamir, Agriculture (15 November), nominated by Ghani
  • Salamat Azimi, Counter-Narcotics (15 November), nominated by Ghani
  • Ali Ahmad Usmani, Water and Energy (15 November), nominated by Abdullah
  • Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi, Refugees (16 November), nominated by Abdullah
  • Abdul Sattar Murad, Economy (16 November), nominated by Abdullah
  • Firuzuddin Firuz, Public Health (16 November), nominated by Abdullah

(For the exact numbers of votes, see the annex.)

The pressure of the presidency seems to have worked at least partially: the number of the ministers voted out by parliament declined over the week; in the last estizah session, on 16 November, all three ministers survived.

The most important estizah victim in the Dr Abdullah camp was foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani, as he is also the current leader of Jamiat-e Islami. Jamiat is one of the most powerful parties in the country. It is also the main support base for the president’s partner in the National Unity Government, Chief Executive Dr Abdullah, (although there were always some Jamiat leaders who were less than enthusiastic in their support). Salahuddin Rabbani has held the Jamiat lead ever since the assassination of his father, former president Borhanuddin Rabbani, in 2011, although still officially in an interim role.

Apart from these seven ministers, there is an additional need to find three other ones: Border and tribes minister Gulab Mangal has just been appointed governor of Nangarhar province, Information and culture minister Abdul Bari Jehani stepped down for health reasons and the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum is currently being run by the former deputy minister, Ghazal Habibyar-Safi, after the previous minister, Daud Shah Saba resigned in March 2016.

Development budget expenditure as a criterion

Formally it makes sense to measure the performance of cabinet members by looking at the spending of their development budgets, as one yardstick. With the division of the budget of Afghanistan’s government institutions, the spending of the development budget, which is fed both by domestic and external sources, reflects how much money ministries and similar institutions invest in their ‘real’ work, for example, in expanding services for the population in the provinces. (The other part of the budget covers salaries and other running costs only.)

Spending figures, though, are a quantitative – and possibly over-simplified – criterion, as they do not reflect the quality, usefulness or effectiveness of what the money has been spent on. The discussions during the estizah sessions also did not constitute systematic performance evaluations of the ministers by the MPs, which could have been done even in the ministers’ absence. As in former years, ministers who did attend the session cast doubt on the figures used by the MPs. For example, foreign minister Rabbani claimed – albeit in vain – that his ministry had in reality spent 73 per cent of its development budget (which would have safeguarded him from estizah).

Whether or not expenditure of development budgets is a fair or accurate way to measure ministers’ performances, it can be assumed that other criteria influenced MPs’ decisions. The usually outspoken Kabul MP Ramazan Bashardost, a former planning minister, indicated that bribes had been handed out to vote or not vote for particular ministers. When he urged fellow-MPs to “stop exchanging money,” his words also indicated that there were both ‘givers’ and ‘takers’ among them. A pro-Ghani MP told AAN that the president himself had encouraged MPs to vote down ministers who did not spend their development budget and had even proposed a threshold of 80 per cent. As always, these accusations are difficult to pin down (although AAN has tried). If budget spending had been the MPs’ point, Bashardost argued, then all ministers below the 70 per cent threshold should have been fired, without exception.

The multidimensional power-struggle behind the estizah

It is not clear who instigated the estizah motions – MPs themselves or Palace intrigue. There are strong rumours in Kabul that the president was planning a cabinet reshuffle anyway and that a caucus of MPs had intervened on his behalf to engineer it through the Wolesi Jirga. But it was clear that various conflict lines converged over the past week and influenced the outcome of the estizah sessions.

First, the estizah motions represent a new round of the on-going power struggle within the NUG. Ostensibly, Ghani and Abdullah had ended their conflict before the Brussels donor conference. For a long time before that, the NUG had presented an unappealing image of disunity which was harming its chances of securing ongoing foreign funding. Harmonisation was achieved, but only on the surface. The underlying problem remained unsolved: Abdullah’s side complains about Ghani’s management style and tendency to micromanage, versus the Ghani camp’s view that Abdullah and his team block reform. Ghani, so one theory wented, wanted to break out of the impasse by reshuffling his cabinet and weakening Abdullah.

Ghani was, reportedly, particularly unhappy with both foreign minister Rabbani and refugee minister Alemi Balkhi. Both had refused to sign (see here and here) the government’s deal with the European Union on the return – both voluntary and involuntary – of rejected Afghan asylum seekers, on which a number of western governments had made the continuation of development aid before the Brussels conference tacitly conditional.

The unhappiness was not one-sided: Rabbani had opposed the president’s appointment of relatives and allies into key ambassadorial positions. These included Ghani’s uncle Qayum Kuchai as ambassador to Moscow, former finance minister Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, to Pakistan and, particularly, Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani as ambassador to Spain, a post held for many years by the long-time aide to late commander Ahmad Shah Massud, Massud Khalili, who was retiring. Appointing Nuristani meant replacing not just an ally, but a close friend of Abdullah with someone from the opposing camp (who had moreover been in charge of the Independent Election Commission during the bitterly-disputed 2014 presidential elections). After these complaints, an MP told AAN, Ghani had asked Rabbani to resign, who had refused and said that he had come from the Abdullah camp and the president could not ask him to vacate his post.

Sources close to the presidential palace and foreign minister Rabbani have told AAN they had the impression that the president was trying to push Abdullah aside in favour of acting Balkh governor, Atta Muhammad Nur. (The New York Times picked up the same rumours, read here, although it also reported that a presidential advisor had rejected the rumours.) The reshuffle, if it happened,  would represent a realignment of the Ghani camp with a different faction within Jamiat, rather than a complete drop of the party. (Playing one Jamiat faction against the other would be similar to former president Karzai’s approach; AAN analysis here.) The same sources, spoke about Ghani’s desire to have nine ministers reshuffled; this was also reflected in some Afghan media,  including in Sarkhat daily, which is considered close to National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar, on 13 November. In this context, President Ghani might not have been unhappy about parliament voting some ministers out of office.

Secondly, the two camps in the government are also competing in parliament to muster majorities, particularly so they can secure votes of confidence for ministers and other appointees they support, for example during estizah sessions. Parliament also has the power to delay laws and, by that, important political projects, as the on-going debate on the electoral law demonstrates. This is further complicated in a house without formal party-based factions, where MPs can switch sides easily.

While Abdullah’s Jamiat party has a relatively stable foothold in the Wolesi Jirga – although nothing close to a majority, the president has even less guaranteed influence, as he lacks an organised power base (such as a party or a movement) of his own. Over the past two years, the president and his allies – particularly Atmar – have worked among MPs to convince a number of them to cooperate with the Palace and to establish what amounts to an informal, pro-presidential caucus in the Wolesi Jirga.

On 14 November 2016, a group of at least 16 MPs (3) collected signatures and asked the speaker of the house to postpone the estizah sessions and urged their fellow MPs to vote for in favour of their proposal. They are ethnically and politically mixed, including both Jamiatis and members of Hezb-e Islami. The most active MPs include Nazir Ahmad Ahmadzai, who is from the president’s tribe in the southeast, as well as a southern, western and another southeastern: Lalai Hamidzai, Muhammad Saleh and Kamal Nasir Osuli. Furthermore, there is Haji Almas, an influential former Hezb-turned Jamiat commander from Parwan province, who is a Tajik and, for now, in the president’s camp. But this group failed in parts of their task, illustrating that the president is still far away from commanding a reliable support base in the Wolesi Jirga.

The debate about whether and when to hold estizah sessions also reflects a continuation of the rocky relations between the executive and legislative branches of government, a legacy of the Karzai years (AAN analysis here), and attempts by parliament to assert itself as an independent body vis-Ă -vis the presidency.

Inner-Jamiati intrigues

Thirdly, jostling over the still vacant leadership in Jamiat has  influenced the balance between the Ghani and the Abdullah camp in the NUG. Atta – who leads Jamiat in the country’s populous north and large parts of the northeast and who became head of the party’s Executive Council, replacing Ahmad Zia Massud, in 2013 – is said to aspire to the overall leadership of the party, wishing to wrest it away from its traditional leaders. They have traditionally been, on the military side, Panjshiris (Ahmad Shah Massud and his commanders) and, on the political side, Badakhshis (Rabbani and son). Abdullah belongs to the Panjshiri faction.

A number of MPs thought to be close to Atta – including Assadullah Sharifi and Farhad Azimi, both from Balkh – had been campaigning against the younger Rabbani and for close Ghani ally Eklil Hakimi (currently finance minister), AAN was told by sources close to the governor. This would, if true, have been part of a quid-pro-quo between Ghani’s and Atta’s supporters. An MP who asked not to be named, told AAN that a person had come to him “before the voting process started and asked me to give a vote of no-confidence to Rabbani” and later “called me to [tell me to] give a vote of confidence to Hakimi.”

Atta rejected these reports in a statement released on his Facebook page on 12 November 2016, condemning the MPs for their “wrong” decision on Rabbani and assuring Jamiat he would do everything to keep their leader in his ministerial position. Earlier, on 2 November, he had confirmed though that he was engaged in negotiations with President Ghani (which he said Abdullah was aware of), but called claims in the Afghan media that he was about to leave his position in the north “incorrect.” There have been long standing rumours that he aspires to a cabinet post, as a staging post for a possible run in the 2019 presidential election (already in 2014, he tried to assume the role of king maker, see AAN analysis here). Atta’s strategy could be to try to weaken Abdullah and replace him as Ghani’s key Tajik ally.

Bringing in new allies?

The other rumour in Kabul is that Ghani wants to create space for ministers from Hezb-e Islami, after a peace treaty was concluded with its leader in late September. The deal may well have made such rewards necessary, although nothing official has been said. Hezb is the traditional competitor of Jamiat, although the mutual tensions eased in 2014 when the then leader of Hezb’s legalised, non-insurgent wing, Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, supported Abdullah (and lost his cabinet post when Ghani won) and Abdullah chose as his running mate, former Hezb-e Islami intelligence chief Khan Muhammad. The party is already represented in government – apart from Khan there are, for example, two cabinet ministers – but not, of course, from within its insurgent wing. Both Hezbi ministers remained in their positions: Justice Minister Anwar won his vote, while rural Development Minister Nasir Ahmad Durrani was not summoned.

Ghani might even seek to placate his predecessor Karzai by making some of his allies minister. Karzai, over many months, has become one of the major critics of the NUG, pushing for a Loya Jirga to decide the fate of the government and in particular the future of the position of chief executive, and regularly commenting on current events in ways seen as critical of the government. A partial rapprochement, bolstered by cabinet posts, could take some steam out of that uneasy relationship (more on this in a forthcoming AAN dispatch).

A mixed outcome

Politically, the outcome of the week-long estizah sessions was mixed. In terms of numbers, the president and his camp (including for example, Vice President’s Dostum’s Jombesh party) lost four ministers: Balegh, Batash, Oryakhel and Momand. Abdullah lost three: Rabbani, Assadullah Balkhi and Wahidi. (2) However, in terms of clout, Ghani’s key ally, finance minister Hakimi, was saved from sacking (Abdullah has reportedly long wanted his nephew, currently deputy minister of finance, Muhammad Mustafa Mastur, for this job), while the Abdullah camp lost Rabbani (foreign affairs). Murad (economy), another key Jamiati, did survive, however.

EU countries will also have noticed with interest that refugee minister Alemi Balkhi – nominated by the Abdullah camp, but more of an independent – survived. He has proven a difficult partner in talks on migration issues and one not always agreeing with the president.

Next round: the budget

The dismissal of more Ghani allies than Abdullah allies, and the loud protests by most MPs on the second day of the estizah sessions against the government’s attempt to postpone them, made it plain that the president’s work in parliament is not yet where he wants it to be. The circle of pro-presidential MPs still does not command a majority. The Abdullah camp continues to have a lot of influence, but cannot command a majority either. The middle ground – vulnerable to political pressure and plain bribery – is too wide, and it is too lucrative for MPs not to be there.

The estizah sessions may have been a cunning plan that backfired. If the president had indeed intended to reshuffle his cabinet, the estizah possibly came too early. Either way, whether the summonings came at his instigation or the MPs’, parliament has again proved it is unpredictable and has its own will. The president was left having to do damage control yet again.

But even if the estizah had been successful in getting rid of exactly those ministers he considers in the way of his policies, the president would have alienated key partners in the NUG – while possible new allies, such as Atta, would have had demands, too, including on appointments. And there would again be no guarantee that the new people would be more effective than those who are now in positions and who cooperate with the president on his reform plans.

The estizah motions have revealed what everyone suspected, that the internal problems of the NUG are far from over. All the intrigues and rumours that were part and parcel of the latest developments – even if the rumours were false – create further mutual distrust, rather than enhance cooperation. The fragmented character of Afghan institutions (including not only the party-less parliament, but also parties such as Jamiat) results in unpredictability for all sides and continues to produce mixed results. In the end, it is difficult to judge who gains and who loses. Moreover, the bad relations between the executive and legislative branches in an over-centralised presidential system, part of the Karzai legacy, continues to stand in the way of smooth political work.

There is more to come, and probably very soon. If overruled by the Supreme Court on behalf of the president, an unhappy parliament might block the budget for the 1396 (2017) fiscal year which it has to vote on [over the] next week[s]. [The budget is currently with the Meshrano Jirga which has 15 days to review it, then passes it on to the Wolesi Jirga that has another 30 days for review after receiving it.] That has been threatened already by one MP, Zazai Watandost, speaking to AAN earlier this week (and publicly repeated by influential eastern MP Haji Qadir). It will also be very time-consuming to again fill the vacant cabinet positions. Appointments have been the main bone of contention between Ghani and Abdullah, and there is no reason to believe the two men will suddenly be able to agree on new appointments without rancour or endless delay.

Edited by Kate Clark

 

(1) The new threshold had been set in the Wolesi Jirga’s plenary session on 2 November 2016, after the representatives of its 15 permanent commissions failed to agree on one in a joint meeting in the second half of October.

Only four ministers escaped estizah by spending more than 70 per cent of their development budgets: Minister of Commerce and Industries, Humayun Rasa from Abdullah’s team; Minister of Interior, Taj Mohammad Jahed from Abdullah’s team, who secured his position after the fiscal year in discussion (1394/2015) had ended; Minister of Women Affairs, Delbar Nazari from Abdullah’s team; and the Minister of Haj and Endowments, Faiz Muhammad Usmani. The Ministry of Defense does not have a development budget.

(2) Out of the women ministers, Oryakhel and Momand were voted out, but Salamat Azimi, the Jombesh-affiliated Minister of Counter-Narcotics survived. Usually, women are particularly vulnerable to votes of no confidence.

(3) This group of MPs included: Engineer Zikria, Nazir Ahmad Ahmadzai, Hashem Rahmani, Saheb Khan, Kamal Nasir Osuli, Eqbal Safi, Muhammad Reza Khoshak Watandost, Obaidullah Kalimzai, Masuda Karokhi, Haji Almas Zahed, Munawar Shah Bahaduri, Saleh Muhammad Saleh, Sayed Muhammad Akhund, Qazi Abdul Rahim, Lalai Hamidzai and Haji Abdul Majid.

 

Annex: The estizah votes

No. Ministers Positive Negative Blank Invalid Results

1

Foreign Minister 58 140 6 3 Dismissed

2

Labour and Social Affairs Ministers 56 144 5 2 Dismissed

3

Public Works Minister 33 164 5 2 Dismissed

4

Finance Minister 85 112 2 5 Remained in his position

5

Minister of Education 68 131 3 2 Dismissed

6

Minister of Transport 51 142 6 5 Dismissed

7

Urban Development Minister 135 59 2 5 Remained

8

Justice Minister 95 101 1 4 Remained

9

Higher Education Minister 63 131 3 4 Dismissed

10

Telecommunication Minister 49 147 3 2 Dismissed

11

Agriculture Minister 131 62 4 4 Remained

12

Counter-narcotics Minister 72 114 9 6 Remained

13

Water and Energy Minister 60 115 23 3 Remained

14

Minister of Refugees 105 90 3 3 Remained

15

Minister of Economy 114 81 4 2 Remained

16

Minister of Public Health 170 28 2 1 Remained
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