Opposition politics? No such luck

As details emerge about the political agreement apparently reached by the Ghani and Abdullah camps through John Kerry’s interventions, it’s becoming increasing clear that this is more of the same short-term elite bargaining and consensus-building that we’ve seen over the last 13 years. While the Kerry deal was important because it rapidly stabilized a tense and difficult situation in the immediate moment, some of the potential long-term costs seem to have been overlooked.

Tolo News reports that a contract was signed between the two candidates, detailing that the constitution would be amended and a Loya Jirga held within 2 years to accommodate a prime-ministerial system – something that Abdullah has long been pushing for.  So no big surprises there. But in addition, the winning candidate will appoint a chief executive and head of opposition, the second of whom would likely be the losing presidential candidate, who will share decisions with the President on appointments to key government posts at the central and provincial levels.

This seems to me a contradiction in terms. Shouldn’t we be calling this person something else, if he’s going to collaborate with the President on appointments? This is not opposition politics – it’s coalition government. And that’s fine, if a coalition government is what you want, and if you still have some form of opposition outside of the ruling coalition: but it’s not fine if the coalition is a substitute for opposition, as appears to the case here. Where are the checks and balances? Who gets to hold the presidential team (including his ‘leader of opposition’) to account? Parliament? Not likely given its track record of being bought off by the Executive branch.  And does this mean that the prime ministerial post, if and when it is created, will share appointment-making too? Again, who gets to complain when the President and prime minister are in cahoots?

Afghanistan has never had a functioning opposition – any group opposed to the King or later government’s control has historically been pushed to the fringes, to radicalize and return a violent threat to the ruling powers. Without creating a space for groups to organize peacefully and have some legitimate influence over what goes on in the decision-making circles in Kabul, this is just going to happen again. And the irony now is that this may have been Abdullah’s chance to forge that space, to create lasting change and a more stable Afghanistan in the long term. But he seems to have opted for the personal gains of a power-sharing agreement instead.

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