Afghanistan's Parliament May Do Better Than Iraq's

Afghanistan pivots to parliament system to avoid electoral crisis, while Iraq's parliament is a crisis.

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, foreground, holds a bilateral meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry background right, on the second straight day of talks, in Vienna, Austria,  Monday July 14, 2014. Secretary of State John Kerry continued in-depth discussions Monday with Iran's top diplomat in a bid to advance faltering nuclear negotiations, with a deadline just days away for a comprehensive agreement.

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, foreground, holds a bilateral meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry background right, on the second straight day of talks, in Vienna, Austria,  Monday.

By + More

America’s Congress may be divided, but Iraq’s parliament can’t even choose new leadership to help repeal jihadist invaders fighting 50 miles from its capital. Meanwhile, over in Afghanistan, Secretary of State John Kerry has swooped in to broker a deal to reshape the parliamentary system.

Iraq has failed to give its minorities a sense of national unity or a voice in government in the wake of war, but where they have fallen short Afghanistan may succeed with help from a new system that shares more power among representatives.  

The details of a new government framework have not been finalized but the deal brings Afghanistan back from the brink as the two main contenders in its presidential election threatened to divide the country. This compromise is key as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw after 13 years of war and seeks to protect the hundreds of billions of dollars spent rebuilding the mountainous nation.  

Reshaping the system that has existed since 2004 was a key goal for one of the top contenders, Abdullah Abdullah, who had threatened to form his own separate government amid allegations of fraud against his rival Ashraf Ghani, who has the backing of current President Hamid Karzai.

All 8 million ballots in the election will be given a complete audit as part of the compromise brokered by Kerry, which will take a few weeks longer than expected and will postpone the inauguration of a new president, originally scheduled for August 2.

[READ: Watchdog Warning: Don't Abandon Afghanistan Again]

“Both candidates have agreed to abide by the results of the audit and that the winner of the election will serve as president and will immediately form a government of national unity,” Kerry said during a news conference on Saturday in Afghanistan. “These are the first steps in what will be, obviously a hard difficult process.”  

Afghans need only look to Iraq for a sense of how difficult reshaping democracy can be.

Iraq's election ended April 30 but its parliament still has no leadership as the Shiite majority of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki remains deadlocked against Sunni Arabs and Kurds in calling for the leader not to seek a third term.

Iraq’s governing body held an emergency meeting Sunday to choose a new president, prime minister and speaker of parliament but failed to agree. That same day jihadist militants of the Islamic State Group seized government buildings in the town of Dhuluiya, just 50 miles north of where the politicians were arguing in Baghdad, Al Jazeera reports.

A parliamentary government will likely work better for Afghanistan than Iraq, however. Switching from the system of a powerful president will better represent the ethnic groups that share a stronger Afghan identity than Iraqi groups like the Kurds who wish to form an independent nation, says Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department analyst on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Karzai is stepping down after 10 years of rule because he has reached the limit of two-five year terms in office, during which time Afghanistan’s various ethnic groups “have not been well served by its winner-take-all presidential system that grants too much power to the president,” Weinbaum says.

Afghanistan is ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt nations, in part because of the Karzai family’s network of cronyism and bribery. Despite these concerns Karzai played a vital role in stabilizing the divisions to help Kerry broker a deal, he says.

Weinbaum speculates the Afghan parliament system may have much in common with that of France.

“The winner would become president and head of state, who may transfer power to the prime minister who would then have the responsibilities of the day-to-day operations of government,” says Weinbaum, now an analyst at the Middle East Institute, a think tank. “Whether out of this comes a governmental arrangement that is able to satisfy the public and not just get them through this crisis remains to be seen.”

Karzai supported Ghani – his former Minister of Finance – during in the election; while Abdullah, who also ran against Karzai during the country’s 2009 election, had the backing of several powerful warlords. Ahead of the ballot audit Ghani seems more likely to win the presidency, but ironically Abudullah seems better suited to the diplomatic head of state role while Ghani would be more skilled as the administrator part of a prime minister, Weinbaum says.

The State Department signaled it would cut aid to Afghanistan if there is not a peaceful transfer of power. The U.S. will also reject any efforts by the candidates to decide leadership through “violence or through any extra-constitutional means,” a senior State Department official said during a news briefing Friday in Afghanistan. 

Withdrawing aid is no idle threat, says retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank. If the election led to violence or even separate governments “there would be a lot of congressional scrutiny about the legitimacy of what government we would provide aid to,” says Barno, who between 2003 and 2005 was the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

“The crucial question is, what does the losing candidate do and how does he behave?” Barno says. 

The Afghan government would almost certainly go bankrupt without American aid, as its people are recovering from decades of invasions by the U.S. in the 2000s, the Taliban in the 1990s and the Soviets in the 1980s.