x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A vital check and balance in Afghanistan

The swearing in of Afghanistan¿s parliament this week is cause for optimism, but it is far too early to pronounce the arrival of representative democracy in Kabul.

This probably wasn't the way Hamid Karzai imagined he would bring members of Afghanistan's many factions together. But whether Hazara, Uzbek or Tajik, or even, like Mr Karzai himself, Pashtun, the elected members of the Afghan parliament stood together and against Mr Karzai's attempts to prevent them from taking their seats in the Wolesi Jirga. The body's 249 members were sworn in on Wednesday, and in the process, Afghanistan had three branches of government in operation for the first time in months.

That Afghanistan's parliament exerted its independence is cause for optimism in a nation where bright spots are in short supply. A system of checks and balances and a parliament that provides them is an important protection against abuses of power. In the absence of these counterweights, corruption flourishes, as it has in Afghanistan.

And yet, it is far too early to pronounce the arrival of representative democracy in Kabul. Many of Afghanistan's parliamentarians are by no means models of upright citizenship. Mr Karzai's justification for delaying the parliament's seating was that at least 50 of its elected members are under investigation for corruption, murder and election-related violence.

The trouble is that Mr Karzai appeared to have other motives than improving Afghan governance in opposing the formation of the parliament. His bid to create a special tribunal to investigate newly elected members, rather than use the country's existing institutions, gave the appearance of a power-grab. Opponents saw Mr Karzai's actions as a poorly-veiled attempt to stack parliament in his favour.

Western governments have welcomed the advent of the Afghan parliament. "There should be no prospect of this political dispute turning into a security crisis", the Nato ambassador Mark Sedwill told journalists on Wednesday. "That's actually the important thing".

Afghanistan's only way forward is to continue with the rickety business of governance, however flawed. Kabul's opportunity for improvement lies not just in the existence of checks and balances but upon their efficiency, legitimacy, and example of how a post-tribal Afghanistan can work, where no group retains a stranglehold on political power. True political representation will mean inclusion of all factions and members of the Taliban may be among them.

As these different groups seek to work through Afghanistan's challenges, hope remains that they can find more to unite them than a mistrust of Mr Karzai.