Ally of Afghan president wins grand council's chairmanship

Karzai scores key victory on first day of loya jirga in fight for strong presidency

December 15, 2003|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan - President Hamid Karzai won an important victory yesterday in his fight for a strong presidency by defeating a delegate revolt on the opening day of this nation's historic constitutional convention.

Supporters of broad power-sharing in a parliamentary system, which Karzai opposes, failed to elect one of their leaders as chairman of the traditional loya jirga, or grand council, which is debating a draft constitution.

Instead, Karzai ally and former Afghan President Sibghatullah Mojaddidi won the chairman's seat, which should help the U.S.-backed Afghan leader beat back opponents of a powerful presidential system.

The sometimes-angry debate on the first day of the loya jirga indicated that it would be more contentious than the one last year that named Karzai interim president until national elections scheduled for June.

Abdul Hafiz Mansoor, a radical newspaper editor, led the unsuccessful challenge to Karzai and his supporters. Mansoor argued that the Afghan leader was imposing illegal procedures on the assembly to ensure that he won the debate.

Mansoor and other delegates insisted that 50 delegates appointed by Karzai should not be allowed to vote and that the 502-member convention should debate the constitution instead of breaking up into 10 groups, as he said Karzai ordered.

"The loya jirga is the greatest and biggest assembly in Afghanistan, and the present government is a child of the loya jirga," said Mansoor, a member of the powerful Jamiat-i-Islami faction. "This government cannot make procedures for its father. And that's why the procedures issued by government are illegal."

Delegates are debating what would be Afghanistan's sixth constitution since 1922. The current constitution was ratified by a loya jirga in 1989, when a Communist government was fighting to hold onto power as Soviet troops withdrew in defeat after a 10-year war with mujahedeen guerrillas.

Karzai has warned that he won't run for his office next year in the absence of a strong presidential system. His opponents want power more evenly shared with a prime minister and parliament.

Critics have called the draft that Karzai is pushing a formula for dictatorship. But he told delegates that the constitution was exactly what citizens wanted.

"The main point of this constitution is to give people freedom, to give their rights to them," Karzai said. "For the first time, Afghans will all have the chance to elect their own president - and a president elected by the people would be the most trusted person in the country."

Mojaddidi began a brief term as Afghan president in 1992 at the start of a factional war that helped the Taliban seize power in 1996. He won the chairmanship yesterday after addressing the assembly for less than a minute, saying that he need not list his accomplishments and that he was simply asking delegates to trust him.

When the 489 ballots cast were counted, in front of the assembly under United Nations supervision, Mojaddidi had 251 votes to Mansoor's 154 votes. The remaining ballots went to two other contenders or were spoiled.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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