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Parliamentarian’s hunger strike highlights Afghan political crisis

A woman’s life hangs in the balance as the Afghan government continues to engage in political brinksmanship.

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Afghan Member of Parliament, Semin Barakzai hooked up to an IV drip lies in a protest tent outside parliament in Kabul on Oct. 13, 2011. (AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Semeen Barakzai lies in a white tent outside the Parliament building in Kabul.

Having refused food and liquids for more than 11 days, she is very weak. Her kidneys are failing, she has been rushed to hospital on one occasion, and her family, friends and supporters fear for her life.

“My sole aim is to ensure justice,” she said in an interview several days ago, her voice even then barely above a whisper. “Either my appeal will be accepted by the appropriate national and international entities or my life will end.”

Barakzai is protesting what she sees as illegal and unjust actions by President Hamid Karzai's government against her and colleagues in Parliament.

She was one of nine MPs expelled from the legislature for alleged fraud in a long-running clash between the executive and legislative branches that has paralyzed the government for more than a year. Many believe the conflict could well lead to a complete collapse of the system if it is not resolved soon.

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Karzai and a host of other government officials have visited Barakzai her tent to plead for an end to her hunger strike and to offer reassurances that a solution will be found. But nothing has yet been done, said her husband, Mohammad Barakzai. The couple is not prepared to take empty promises.

“The government is not considering our appeal, so we are not appealing to the government any more,” he said. “Semeen would have not been in this critical condition if the government had considered her request.”

Various organizations, including the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) have agitated for Karzai to take action.

Barakzai wants her case, and those of the other eights MPs who were expelled, to be reopened, with a full and fair accounting to the Afghan people. So far, this has not been done.

The problem began in September, 2010, with parliamentary elections that were so tainted by allegations of fraud that it was almost impossible to determine the winners. Ballot-box stuffing, voter intimidation, and distortion of final tallies were so widespread that one Afghan television station, the independent TOLO, began to run a nightly “Candid Camera” type sequence in which Afghans who had caught some of the malfeasance on cell phone cameras or other recording devices could air their footage.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) investigated thousands of complaints, but nevertheless released “final, certified” results at the end of October, 2010.

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This was overly optimistic, however.

The president, who was reported to have been unhappy with the roster delivered by the IEC, instituted a Special Court in December to adjudicate cases of fraud from the elections.

Despite the cloud hanging over the new body, Karzai inaugurated the Parliament in January, 2011. But MPs complained bitterly about the court, labeling it as the executive branch’s instrument of pressure on the legislature. Afghan and international experts rejected the court’s standing, saying that the constitution gave the ultimate responsibility for elections results to the IEC and the ECC.

For six months the Parliament barely functioned, while the court conducted its investigations. In June the court issued its verdict: In a dramatic session it announced that 62 MPs — close to a quarter of the 249-member body — would be expelled for fraud. They announced the names of the replacement candidates, setting in motion a summer of protests that all but shut down the legislature.

In August, Karzai dissolved the Special Court and returned authority to the IEC, which lost no time in revising the court’s ruling. In less than two weeks the IEC announced that nine members of the standing Parliament would be replaced. They set about doing just that, although they had to summon police to the National Assembly to bar the old MPs from entering the building, and to escort the nine new members in.

This pleased just about no one.

At present, there are a least four different bodies protesting the situation. The Coalition for the Rule of Law, a group within Parliament that boasts over 100 members, rejects any changes to the Parliament’s composition on legal grounds. The executive branch had no authority to interfere with the legislature once the IEC announced the results last October, they say.

"Our position is clear. We believe that any change in the Parliament's composition is against the law," said Zahir Qadir, the leader of the coalition "The government has used force in introducing new members to the Parliament. In our opinion this act of the government is illegitimate and a coup d’etat against the real votes of people."

Another, smaller group calling themselves the Reformists, supports the government, and is pushing for the Parliament to fall in line with the latest decision rendered by the IEC. Afghanistan must move on, they insist, and the current crisis is doing no one any good.

"The Reformists agreed with the Coalition for the Rule of Law regarding the Special Court, but now we believe that IEC's decision is appropriate and will help put an end to the crisis,” said Mawlawi Shahzada Shahid, an MP from Kunar.

But the Reformists inspire mistrust among other politicians for their close ties to the government. The leadership of the group includes the brothers of two prominent Cabinet ministers, and many see the body as a fifth-column action by the executive branch.

“The institution of the Reformists’ Parliamentary group was the result of the government’s prolonged efforts,” said political analyst Qasim Akhgar. “The government wanted to dominate the Parliament and put pressure on Coalition for the Rule of Law.”

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Also staging protests are 53 candidates named by the court as replacements for those deemed guilty of fraud but whose appointments were not backed by the IEC.

And, of course, the nine candidates who were expelled are trying fiercely to be reinstated. Barakzai falls into this category.

As the various groups jostle and compete for attention, no work is being done at the Parliament.

For over a month the body was unable to assemble a quorum, meaning that no laws could be passed, no decisions adopted, no budgets approved.

The Coalition just days ago abandoned its boycott and reentered the chamber, but no one is quite sure whether this will end the crisis or merely introduce a new phase.

The big losers in this dangerous and unsavory game are, of course, the Afghan people. Not only are they being deprived of a working government, they are fast losing faith in the entire democratic process.

“The government should have accepted the results of the 2010 Parliamentary first declared by the IEC, and it should have not created the current tension,” said Jandad Spinghar, Chief Executive Director for Free and Fair Election for Afghanistan (FEFA). “The current dispute between the two branches has caused people to lose hope in free and fair elections as well as the value of their vote.”

FEFA has also expressed concern over Barakzai, saying that it supported her protest and appealed to the Afghan government to take action.

With the international effort in Afghanistan winding down after 10 long and difficult years, the failure of the Afghan government to step up and take effective control of the country is proving a stumbling block to a smooth transition.

As David Kilcullen, renowned military strategist and specialist on Counterinsurgency, or COIN, points out in his latest book, “Counterinsurgency,” the Afghan government has become a key driver of instability in the country.

“Bad behavior by government officials and power brokers … creates popular rage and disillusionment,” he writes.

One of those victims of that popular rage could well be Semeen Barakzai. For her, any reform could well come too late.

Abdul Qayum Suroush is an independent journalist based in Kabul. Independent journalist Asar Hakimi also contributed to this report from Kabul.