Afghans in for a "wild spring"

Update: In a surprise visit to Afghanistan Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and demanded Afghan authorities follow through on promises to improve anticorruption efforts and to enforce the rule of law.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Hopes of democracy are gradually fading in Afghanistan, say foreign and domestic observers. President Hamid Karzai is now so focused on his own status that he is ready to sacrifice any pretense of fair play to perpetuate himself and his family at the center of the power.

Just as worrying, in the eyes of many, is the fact that the international community that backs his administration with troops and treasure seems to be allowing Karzai free rein in the name of stabilization and expediency.

“Karzai is totally focused on staying in power,” said one Western official. This was echoed by sources within the presidential palace, where close advisers are becoming increasingly concerned that the president is spinning his own version of an executive coup.

Over the past several months, the Afghan president has taken several steps designed to cement his position at the expense of the other branches of government. The end game say insiders, may be a bid to amend the constitution to allow Karzai to remain in power indefinitely.

Coming up in late April in Kabul is Karzai’s much-vaunted Peace Jirga, in which up to 1,500 hand-picked delegates will discuss the president’s appeal for reconciliation with the insurgency.

One possible scenario, according to a long-time observer of Afghan politics, is that Karzai could use the event to declare a state of emergency, followed by a Constitutional Loya Jirga, or Grand Council, that could change the law in any way that the president deems fit.

“Things could get wild this spring,” said the political expert.

During the Parliament’s winter recess, Karzai issued a decree unilaterally “amending” the law that will govern parliamentary elections slated for September. He has toughened up the requirements for running for office, along the way neutering the one body that stood up to the egregious fraud perpetrated in his name during last year’s presidential poll — the Electoral Complaints Commission.

Formerly ECC commissioners were drawn from various institutions — three internationals and two Afghans. Under the new law, five commissioners will be Afghan. Few doubt that they will be chosen for their pliability by Karzai himself.

“It’s a disaster,” said one former ECC member, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Kai Eide, the former U.N. special representative in Afghanistan, negotiated a “compromise” in the last days before his departure in early March. Karzai has agreed to accept two internationals on the ECC, as a concession to Afghanistan’s “transitional” status.

“This was not due to international pressure,” said presidential spokesman Siyamak Herawi.

But while the Afghan and international media were busy celebrating Karzai’s “reversal,” experts were not so sure. The addition of two internationals does not necessarily mean the subtraction of two Afghans, they say.

“My guess is we’ll see seven or even nine commissioners,” said one election expert who is monitoring the process. “The law is neutral on the number of commissioners.”

The influence of the internationals can be diluted to the point of insignificance by an increase in the number of Karzai loyalists on the commission.

The August presidential elections were badly marred by systematic, organized ballot-rigging, a fact that Karzai has still not officially accepted. The ECC tossed out more than 1.2 million votes, depriving Karzai of a first-round victory and necessitating a runoff between Karzai and Abdullah. The runoff never occurred, because Abdullah withdrew, saying that he refused to participate in what he saw as an inherently corrupt process.

Karzai and his administration blame the foreign community for exaggerating the level of fraud, and insist that Karzai actually won the election. But the stigma of illegitimacy hangs over his administration, a fact for which he will not soon forgive the complaints commission.

“[Karzai] is taking his revenge on the ECC,” said Saleh Mohammad Registani, who was deputy campaign manager for Karzai’s chief rival in the elections, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.

But he seems to be doing much more than that. In order to push through his amendments, Karzai used a mechanism in the law that was never designed to allow the president to shortcut the legislative process.

Article 79 of the constitution specifies that the president can adopt legislation “in emergency situations during a recess of the Wolesi Jirga [the Lower House of Parliament]. The legislative decrees become law after they are signed by the president.”

Parliament had 30 days to reject the decree after they reconvened, which was Feb. 20. But with just one week to go before the amendments pass into law by default, there has been little movement from the legislature.

One factor, say political specialists, has been the lack of reaction from the international community.

The U.N., which has the lead on elections, has been extremely cautious on the subject.

“Reactions were initially quite muted as all things were weighed up,” said U.N. spokesperson Dan McNorton.

The Americans have not provided much in the way of guidance, either.

“[Parliamentary Speaker Younus] Qanuni has said he will not put it on the agenda,” said a source close to the Parliament. “But he is actually waiting for a sign from the Americans that they are against it.”

That sign may be a long time coming. Department of State spokesperson P.J. Crowley actually called Karzai’s new law “a step forward” for Afghanistan’s democratization process.

But specialists see it differently.

“The biggest concern people should have about the electoral law revision is that the process was not conducted transparently with input from voters, candidates, or political parties who, after all, are the stakeholders that matter most for democracy in Afghanistan,” said Scott Worden, former ECC commissioner.

Instead, the president experimented in unilateral tinkering with the law, and suffered no apparent detriment. Many fear this could trigger even bolder moves in the future.

Another reason for Parliament’s quiescence, say those close to the legislature, has been the influence of the “warlords,” the strongmen with whom Karzai has allied himself and to whom, in large part, he owes his power. Some of these men have reportedly been making phone calls to lawmakers, using their influence to “lobby” for the amended law.

The warlords have every reason to be grateful to the president. In December he quietly signed and officially published a bill granting immunity to those involved in the decades of war in Afghanistan. No “mujaheddin” can be prosecuted for war crimes, according to the new law.

The law has provoked an outcry from human rights groups both within Afghanistan and abroad.

“It completely flies in the face of international conventions that Karzai signed,” said one Western diplomat. “It also lets his government off the hook.”

Karzai’s second administration contains several figures who have been named as war criminals in more than one human rights report. His first vice president, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, has a prominent place on the list of offenders, as does his military chief of staff, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum.

All of this should be putting Karzai at odds with his international backers. But so far the diplomatic community has been all but silent. Behind the scenes maneuvering has yielded little in terms of concessions from the Afghan president, say those privy to the negotiations, and no political heavyweight has yet come out to criticize the increasingly authoritarian president publicly.

Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke rejected the notion that Afghanistan was moving in the wrong direction.

“I do not see a pattern,” he responded when asked about the election law, new constraints on the media and other measures during a press briefing in Washington, D.C., on March 2.

But more and more observers are seeing just that. Former ECC commissioner Worden called the presidential elections of 2009 “a significant setback in the development of democracy in Afghanistan.”

Other hallmarks of progress are also under threat.

In recent weeks, Karzai’s administration has taken steps to muzzle the press, both domestic and international. On March 1, the National Directorate of Security summoned major broadcast journalists one by one for a “friendly chat” and informed them that they would no longer be allowed to show the immediate aftermath of suicide bombings or other terrorist attacks.

Saeed Ansari, spokesman for the NDS, reportedly told those he had called in that there was reason to suspect that video footage of operation gave too much information to the enemy and moral support to terrorists. From now on, he told the journalists, they should wait until the security forces gave them the necessary information and permission to film.

According to some who were involved in the meetings, the tone was far from cordial. There were veiled and not-so-veiled threats of punishment, including confiscation of camera equipment, denial of visas and other punitive measures for those who choose to violate the new restrictions.

The move generated a storm of reaction, and for now the government seems to be backing off. Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar told the media the following day that the NDS was just making “recommendations,” but the press remains unsettled.

“It is worse than Zimbabwe, in a way,” fumed one international election worker, discussing both the threat to the media and the president’s unilateral amendments to the election law. “At least there you know what you are up against. Here in Afghanistan we are pretending that it is a developing democracy. But it’s one thing, then another; when you put them all together it is very alarming.”