Afghan 2010 Basics: Wolesi Jirga

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The Wolesi Jirga, or House of the People, is the supreme law-making body in Afghanistan. The 249-seat assembly sits alongside the Meshrano Jirga to form Afghanistan’s bi-cameral parliament.

The Wolesi Jirga elections in 2005 marked the first legislative elections in Afghanistan for almost 40 years.

Despite a lower turnout than the presidential election a year before and increased violence ahead of the poll the elections were largely seen as a success.

The allocation of seats inside the assembly is proportional to the population of the province they represent.

At least a quarter of the seats are allocated to women. During the 2005 elections, several women candidates won their seats outright.

Yunus Qanooni, runner-up to Hamid Karzai in the 2004 presidential election, was elected Speaker of the Wolesi Jirga and has remained in the role throughout his five-year term.

On September 18, the voters of Afghanistan will return to the polls to cast votes to determine the make up of the next Wolesi Jirga.

The main role of the Wolesi Jirga is to make and debate laws but the assembly plays a vital role in providing checks and balances on the power of the executive, the president.

The house through two-thirds majority is able to override bills rejected by the president. Another key duty is ratifying Cabinet positions, Supreme Court justices and the heads of the intelligence directorate and Central Bank.

In the past five years, the assembly has shown its independence by voting down appointments by the president.

The Wolesi Jirga is also able to summon ministers to answer questions should 20 per cent of its members agree. After which, the minister can be subject to a vote of no-confidence.

Critics of the Wolesi Jirga have argued its members are dominated by those who fought against the Soviets during the 1980s and who engaged in brutal civil war before the emergence of the Taliban in 1996.

The issue was highlighted by outspoken female Wolesi Jirga member Malalai Joya.

Elected as the representative of Farah province, Ms Joya rattled against the “warlords” who killed tens of thousands of innocent people during the civil war.

Some fellow MPs pelted her with water bottles and later voted to suspend her from parliament for three years, the remainder of her term.

The division of allegiance inside the Wolesi Jirga has fluctuated over the past five years.

According to a paper by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) in June 2010, an MP said there were three blocs within the Wolesi Jirga – the majority who classed themselves as pro-government, 70 who considered themselves to be the opposition and a group of 20 swinging voters whose allegiance fluctuated.

Support, however, for the opposition increased after the fraud-riddled presidential election.

Most of the MPs spoken to by AREU said they would be standing for election again in the 2010 poll, saying their constituents had urged them to do. They said the access to ministers they received was instrumental in them solving their constituents’ problems.