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Missing in action: Afghan lawmakers

Posted: June 26, 2012 - 12:00am

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans have long complained about the performance of their elected representatives. But lately, these complaints haven’t been about what lawmakers are doing, but rather what they’re not doing. Many, it appears, are no longer showing up for work.

According to the government agency charged with monitoring attendance of the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament, 43 lawmakers, or nearly 10 percent of the 249-member body, were absent for the entire month of March.

An equal number were missing for the entire month of April. On some days, there are too few members present to obtain a quorum.

Abdul Sattar Khawasi, a lawmaker from Parwan province who is also a member of the panel that monitors members’ attendance, acknowledges that chronic absenteeism has become a serious problem.

“There are some individuals in parliament who have been absent for as much as a year, but have still received their full salaries and privileges,” he said.

The average member receives $1,100 a month, with a three-month paid vacation. The average per-capita income in Afghanistan is about $1,000 a year.

Khawasi has promised to punish lawmakers for their extended absences.

“The administrative board will henceforth cut the salaries and privileges of absentee members,” Khawasi said.

Others complain that when lawmakers are on the job, they are more interested in obtaining benefits for themselves, friends or relatives than they are in conducting the country’s business.

Abdul Majid Qarar, a spokesman for the Afghan agriculture ministry, said that lawmakers routinely pressure his agency’s staff to hand out jobs to their associates.

“As well as asking for plots of land, members of parliament also interfere in the ministry’s affairs and ask for friends and relatives to be appointed to key ministry positions,” he said. “Some of them even tell us to sack such-and-such a person and appoint a friend of theirs to that position.”

A higher education ministry official, who asked that his name not be used, agreed.

“Members of parliament waste 50 percent of our time,” he said. “They come with 10 applications at a time — one of them asking for scholarships for his friends and family, another wanting his friend to be appointed.”

Even some lawmakers are willing to admit that things have gotten out of hand, but they blame the pervasive nature of government corruption for the problem.

Gul Padshah Majidi, who represents the southeast province of Paktia, said corruption in government had encouraged legislators to engage in similar practices.

“The Afghan government paved the way for corruption. This has led certain members of parliament to engage in corruption and abuses,” he said.

Sayed Hussein Alemi Balkhi, who represents a Kabul constituency, said abuse of power by some lawmakers had reached critical proportions and is damaging parliament’s reputation and legitimacy.

With lawmakers held in such low regard, it’s no wonder that many feel the need to maintain more than the four armed bodyguard allotted by the government for their protections.

Local media have reported that at least five members of parliament maintain armed retinues of between 20 and 40 members, all paid for by the interior ministry.

Even erstwhile reformer Khawasi acknowledged that he had nine bodyguards. He justified their presence by saying that he lived and worked in a dangerous area.

Not all lawmakers believe they need armed escorts.

Ramazan Bashardost, a member of parliament and a consistent critic of the rich and powerful, said he had no guards, and could not understand why others needed them.

“If these members of parliament were elected by the people, why are they scared?” he said. “There’s a large gulf between them and the public.”

• Habib is a reporter in Afghanistan who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.

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