A blueprint for change

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

Hamid Karzai addresses the Loya Jirga after it voted in favour of the draft Constitution on January 4. - SHAH MARAI/AFP

Hamid Karzai addresses the Loya Jirga after it voted in favour of the draft Constitution on January 4. - SHAH MARAI/AFP

President Hamid Karzai's scheme for a political transition in Afghanistan gets legitimacy with the Grand Assembly approving the draft Constitution, which provides for a presidential system.

A CRUCIAL convention of the Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) of Afghanistan was declared open by the former King, Zahir Shah, in Kabul on December 14, which approved the draft of a new Constitution for the country on January 4.

The draft Constitution vests immense powers in the President. The current interim President, Hamid Karzai, has indicated that he would like to retain the presidency after the elections, scheduled for the middle of the year. No serious challengers to Karzai have emerged so far. The Americans, who installed Karzai in power in Kabul, have indicated that he is their man to run Afghanistan in the coming years. The international community, by and large, backs Karzai.

Karzai and his international supporters opposed the creation of a post of a Prime Minister, as envisaged initially by the drafters of the Constitution. They claim that a Prime Minister could emerge as a rival centre of power in the highly polarised Afghan society. The powerful Northern Alliance would have liked its nominee to be the Prime Minister. It is no secret that the present Defence Minister, Mohammed Fahim, wanted the job.

When the Loya Jirga was in session, rockets were fired into Kabul at regular intervals by the Taliban. However, none of them managed to disrupt the proceedings. There was a suicide attack on December 28 near the Kabul international airport when the session was about to wind up. Five Afghan security personnel and two suicide bombers died in it. This was the most serious attack inside Kabul since the killing of four German peacekeepers in June 2003. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Taliban has escalated since early August its attacks on the foreign forces in Afghanistan and their local allies. More than 400 people have been killed since then. International agencies like the United Nations have acknowledged that the Taliban and other opposition groups have resurfaced in a big way all over Afghanistan. Warlords and insurgents hold sway over large swathes of territory. Most U.N. personnel and international aid workers have quit the country.

Despite the threats they faced, more than 500 delegates, including 100 women, from all over Afghanistan attended the Grand Assembly session. Fifty of the delegates were handpicked by Karzai despite objections from the other delegates and political parties. International observers have criticised the election of the delegates to the Loya Jirga, describing it as marred by intimidation and vote-buying. They are also not too happy with the draft Constitution, which they say concentrates power in the hands of the President. Thousands of Afghan and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) soldiers provided round-the-clock security to the delegates who met in a huge tent put up for the occasion on a university campus.

The Loya Jirga started off on a positive note after the delegates elected Sibghatullah Mujaddedi its Chairman. Mujaddedi, a leading player in the struggle against the Soviet-backed government in the 1980s, was interim President for a short period after the mujahideen came to power. Critics of Karzai emphasise that under the draft Constitution, Parliament will be virtually powerless. The new Constitution will give the President the right to appoint senior officials in the provinces also. Karzai had threatened not to contest the election if the Loya Jirga approved the creation of the post of Prime Minister. He said he pushed for a strong presidency in order to avoid the instability of the "parliamentary system and coalition governments created by armed gangs". Many delegates supported Karzai's viewpoint, saying that a strong presidential system of government was needed in a country, which lacked credible political parties and was ravaged by warlords and sectarian politics.

Many of those who oppose Karzai are former mujahideen leaders supporting the Northern Alliance, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former President. They demanded and got a full debate on the Constitution along with a vote on the kind of government the country should adopt. Some delegates went to the extent of accusing Karzai and the Americans of arm-twisting delegates owing allegiance to the Northern Alliance into supporting the presidential system of government. When a woman delegate supporting Karzai accused the mujahideen delegates of being responsible for the chaos that led to the rise of the Taliban, pandemonium broke loose, with some angry mujahideen delegates demanding that the delegate who made the observation be expelled. The delegate, however, did not have anything negative to say about the role of the Americans in the emergence of the mujahideen and the lawlessness that subsequently engulfed Afghanistan.

With the Americans supporting Karzai's bid for a system with a strong President and a Loya Jirga packed with delegates owing allegiance to the United States-backed government, it was no surprise that the votaries of the presidential system had their way. Karzai told the Loya Jirga that the presidential system was essential for unity among the diverse ethnic groups in Afghanistan. His opponents, mainly from the Northern Alliance and the mujahideen group, on the other hand, argued that personalised rule would only accentuate divisions and encourage authoritarian tendencies. From the very outset, it was evident that Karzai was assured of a simple majority that was necessary to get approval for his blueprint for political transition in Afghanistan.

All the 10 committees formed by the 502-member Loya Jirga to discuss the draft Constitution voted to adopt the presidential system, with some amendments that would make it incumbent on an elected President to consult Parliament on all important issues and seek its approval when key appointments are made. An influential section in the Loya Jirga also wants presidential and parliamentary elections to be held simultaneously next June. Many of the warlords, such as Rashid Dostum in Mazar-e-Sharif and Ishmail Khan in Herat, fear that Karzai would sideline them and appoint his own men as Governors. This is also what the Americans want. "The presidential form of government is known all over the world. The powers are known, the limitations are known. We should be making a Constitution that reflects that system, not a confusion of it," Karzai told the Loya Jirga as the debate was heating up.

There were some last-ditch attempts to curtail the powers of the presidency. Burhanuddin Rabbani said that some delegates feared that the new Constitution would create a dictatorship. "In Third World countries, Presidents have passed power to their sons and the result has been bloodshed and coups. If the presidential system is accepted, the delegates will ask for a strong Parliament," Rabbani said. Some amendments aimed at emphasising the Islamic character of the Afghan state were approved at the insistence of some prominent delegates, who at one time were high-ranking figures in the "holy war" against the Soviet Union. A passage in one key article was amended to say that no law could be contrary "to the principles and values of Islam".

The conservatives have also been successful in restricting the rights of women. Many women delegates had demanded the rights of equal inheritance and divorce. In a country where the shadow of the Taliban is lengthening, such views are considered too radical. However, the women delegates pressured the Loya Jirga to spell out categorically in the Constitution that both men and women enjoy equal rights.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. Special Representative to Afghanistan, said that he was generally encouraged by "the voice of moderation" that was predominant in the marathon deliberations, which exceeded the two-week deadline.

Ethnic groups such as the Uzbeks and the Tajiks are said to be not too happy with the outcome of the proceedings. Rabbani, a Tajik, warned that concentration of power in Karzai's hands would lead to dictatorship and spark a new conflict.

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