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MPs have right to protect their own interests

Farhad Peikar
Guaranteeing the safety and financial wellbeing of Afghan lawmakers is good for the system in the long run, writes AT editor Farhad Peikar
24.07.2014  |  New York

Earlier this month, as the country teetered on the brink of civil war, MPs drafted a bill guaranteeing personal and financial security for lawmakers after the end of their terms in office. They obviously chose a wrong time and method to address their grievances, but what they asked for is not totally wrong.

On July 12, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Afghanistan to resolve an electoral deadlock that threatened to tear the country apart. Moving among multiple venues to meet with Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, and other Afghan officials for talks that finally led to an agreement on an internationally supervised audit of all eight million ballots cast in the election’s second round, Kerry’s intervention prevented an impending crisis.

On the same day, as media lenses fixated on Kerry, the Afghan Parliament passed the Protection and Rights of Parliamentarians bill, which entitles MPs to special privileges even if they only serve one term. The law obligates the government to pay retired MPs a quarter of the salaries they earned while in office. The state must also provide ex-lawmakers with two bodyguards and diplomatic passports. 

Though MPs hoped the law would escape public attention, it triggered outrage and prompted criticism across the country. Hundreds of people took to streets in Kabul and other major cities, protesting the law and calling the MPs “selfish” “self-centered”, and “irresponsible.” Some even carried placards that suggested that the MPs' recent bill was an act of “national treason”. Media analyses of the law were equally harsh, as many activists lashed out at the lawmakers on TV and in newspaper editorials.

It was clearly wrong of MPs to exploit the post-election crisis for their own benefit. At a time when the country was on the brink of chaos over post-election deadlock, lawmakers should have influenced their constituencies to bring voters together and prevent civil unrest. They could have intervened anonymously to broker a deal between the two candidates.

But before denouncing the lawmakers outright, one must weigh the legitimacy of their grievances. If the political system lacks the means to guarantee personal safety and financial independence for its top lawmakers once they leave office, can we really dismiss their legal efforts to achieve these goals as abuse of office?

Secret bills of this type are not new in Afghanistan. The recent bill is akin to a similar action in 2007, when MPs passed the National Stability and Reconciliation Law, which granted blanket immunity from prosecution to all former war combatants. At the time, many lawmakers stood accused of war crimes, and worried a transitional justice project that was gaining local and international support would hold them accountable. Under pressure from the international community and civil society groups, President Karzai promised not to approve the law, but his government secretly published the bill in the official gazette in 2010, thus bringing it into force. 

The Afghan parliament has come a long way since 2007. A lower house dominated mainly by war and drug lords has evolved into a democratic institution where women, civil society groups and the youth have representation. The 249 members of the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, have been more active than their predecessors from 2005-2010. They have summoned Afghan government officials to answer for their shortcomings and sacked many top officials, including ministers of defense, foreign affairs and the interior after they failed to justify their political actions. 

Like many members of the public, the country’s lawmakers lose sleep over their future prospects in post-NATO Afghanistan. In recent years, many top government officials failed to return from their official trips abroad and chose instead to seek asylum in the countries they visited.  Those with means have already bought houses in Dubai, Turkey and elsewhere in the region in case Afghanistan slips back into chaos. Therefore, it should be no surprise lawmakers are asking for diplomatic passports: They want to get foreign visas and flee the country if everything goes south.

During their time in office, the MPs made countless enemies among their political rivals as well as the insurgency. Militants have targeted and killed dozens of lawmakers in the past. Last year, the Taliban kidnapped Ghazni lawmaker Fariba Ahmadi Kakar and only freed her after the government released five Taliban prisoners in exchange. Given the deteriorating security situation, the least the government can do to protect the country’s retired legislators is provide them with two bodyguards. After all, President Karzai, who is set to step down as the first democratically elected president later this year, is also building his retirement home at the edge of the fortified presidential palace. Besides the implicit political motive, the president appears worried for his future safety. To protect his family, he chose to build his future abode in the country’s most secured location.

Finally, the MPs are requesting financial support because the country lacks mechanisms to ensure their future employment. A state income may prevent them from earning money through illegal channels. As it stands, many MPs have been accused of accepting payments from Pakistan and Iran in exchange for promoting the countries’ interests. Some are also suspected of taking bribes from senior government officials in return for votes of confidence. It’s difficult to undo the harmful actions of current MPs, who only have one year left until the end of their terms. But providing post-tenure financial incentive might prevent future legislators from resorting to graft and working for foreign governments.

Another way to ensure MPs’ future security is to provide them with respectable jobs after they retire. In the United States, for example, many legislators work as consultants and lobbyists, or form special interest groups after they leave office. A similar mechanism may work for Afghan lawmakers.

Establishing legal framework that ensures personal safety and post-tenure income could address the lawmakers’ grievances once and for all.  Mentalities take time to change, and the effects of these efforts may only manifest in the long term. But the existence of such mechanisms would enable future MPs to focus more on their duties, rather than diverting their energies to personal concerns. Those who try to change the country for the better must not later be forced to flee it.