Afghan factions divided on draft constitution

Delegates discuss having a president or parliament

December 14, 2003|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

KABUL, Afghanistan - If all goes as planned, the constitutional convention due to start today will mark a turning point in Afghanistan's troubled history, an opportunity for feuding groups to put the past behind them, talk over differences and achieve consensus on a vision of a democratic future.

But allegations of vote-buying, backroom deals and rifts over key issues have cast a shadow over the constitutional loya jirga, at which 500 delegates from across the country are to debate and ratify a draft version of a new constitution.

The gathering, to be held under a vast tent erected on the grounds of the Kabul Polytechnic Institute, was to have started yesterday. It was delayed because some delegates from far-flung provinces had not arrived, organizers said. Western officials involved in the process said the delay was to allow extra time to rally delegates behind the draft constitution, which is turning out to be more contentious than anticipated.

When first released, the document was hailed for the balance it strikes between Afghanistan's traditional roots and its modernist aspirations.

It describes Afghanistan as an Islamic republic but stops short of prescribing the rigid Shariah system of law that some Islamic fundamentalists would like to see.

It enshrines the equality of all Afghans but stops short of spelling out the equality of women in ways that would anger conservatives who don't believe women are equal to men.

And, in the portion seen as most contentious, it gives sweeping powers to the presidency. Any future president would be able to appoint a third of the members of the legislature's upper house and all the country's judges, and could rule by decree when the legislature isn't sitting.

Many of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities fear being shut out under such a powerful presidency and are calling for a parliamentary system in which an elected prime minister would be responsible for forming the government. The Tajiks, who represent 20 percent of the population but whose mujahedeen fighters secured a dominant role in the current administration because of their role in defeating the Taliban, are leading the call for such a system.

They have the support of many liberals.

"If this presidential system is allowed to stand, Afghanistan will once again become a dictatorship, and eventually we will slip back into civil war again," said Abdul Kabir Ranjber, a delegate who is head of Kabul's bar association. "I think the majority of delegates are opposed to this."

Increasingly, the draft document is being seen by many Afghans and independent analysts as an attempt by the United States to entrench the authority of President Hamid Karzai, who is expected to be the leading contender for the presidency in elections to be held next summer.

"This draft constitution is aimed purely at securing the status quo in Kabul," said a highly critical report on the process by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "It is doubtful this document could command genuinely deep popular support, build democratic institutions and, thus, contribute to long-term stability."

Karzai warned last week that he won't run for election if the draft is changed to allow for a prime minister.

"If there is a parliamentary system, I will not be a candidate," he said.

But the mujahedeen commanders appear to have a majority of delegates, who were elected by district representatives in the past few weeks. According to an Agence France-Presse analysis of the election results, which have not been made public, former mujahedeen commanders account for 70 percent of 500 seats.

Whether elections were fair is also in question. There are widespread allegations of vote-buying in Kabul province, where 10 of the 14 seats went to mujahedeen commanders in an election process that many candidates described as deeply flawed.

Supporters of the presidency say that is why Afghanistan isn't politically mature enough for a parliamentary system.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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