Writers of Afghan constitution favoring a strong presidency

Post of prime minister loses support, heeding U.S. call for central power

December 21, 2003|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan - Supporters of a strong presidency appear to be winning the argument in Afghanistan's constitutional convention, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said yesterday.

One of the main issues in front of the loya jirga, or traditional grand assembly, debating a constitution is whether an elected Afghan president should share power with a prime minister chosen by parliament.

Khalilzad said debate over a strong parliament vs. a presidential system appears to be fading, with support falling behind a president who will work with a two-house parliament, but not a prime minister.

"Of course, it's not all settled until the constitution is decided on, and that won't happen until we know what the final document says," Khalilzad told reporters. "But at this stage, it looks like there is a preference for a presidential system."

The United States and its key Afghan ally, interim President Hamid Karzai, want a strong presidential system on the assumption that more power at the center will make it easier to piece Afghanistan back together after more than 24 years of war.

But opponents have argued that a country with so many competing ethnic and political interests needs to spread government authority around in order to make fights over concentrated power less likely.

Mohammed Azam Dadfar, a deputy chairman of the assembly, said long tea breaks and Friday prayers on the Muslim holy day - not serious disputes - have delayed discussions slightly. But he insisted that the delegates are making progress.

Committee discussions might end as early as today, allowing any proposed amendments to go to a reconciliation committee set up to resolve any differences, Dadfar said.

Khalilzad said he wasn't sure how close the delegates are to finishing their work.

"So far, things have been moving reasonably well," he said. "Difficult issues and situations have been managed relatively well. And there must be a sense of satisfaction, I think, in terms of what has happened so far.

"But, of course, there is a long way to go, so I don't want to declare that everything is finished and it's been a successful process. Until now it has, and I'm hopeful that it will turn out that way."

As one sign of progress, Khalilzad noted the changing situation of delegate Malalai Joya. She was ejected from the assembly tent Wednesday, and provided United Nations protection, for denouncing powerful militia leaders as criminals. Now she is a "rapporteur," or official recorder, of the debate for one committee, Khalilzad said.

The assembly's 502 delegates, who began convening a week ago, are debating in 10 committees, or working groups, that can propose amendments. Those will be passed to the reconciliation committee before the draft constitution is put to a final vote.

Organizers have barred reporters from covering the committees' discussions, leaving most Afghans largely in the dark about what is happening in a historic debate that is a crucial step toward the country's first-ever democratic elections.

The national polls are planned for June, but continued fighting and attacks on civilians in parts of the country have slowed a U.N. voter registration campaign, raising doubts that the elections will be held at the scheduled time.

Khalilzad said an effort to strengthen parliament's powers to dismiss a future president was strongly defeated in a committee headed by Ustad Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a hard-line Islamist with influence over the warlords.

The balance of power between Kabul and the provinces is also under debate, and Khalilzad said the assembly appears to be leaning toward giving the president the power to appoint provincial governors.

Women are pressing to have constitutionally guaranteed rights explicitly apply to men and women, not simply Afghan citizens, as the current text says.

Strengthening the language on women's rights would be good, Khalilzad said. "But my sense is that, at a minimum, it will stay as it is," he said. "It might get better."

The closed debate, and the apparent ease with which the opposition's publicly stated objections are being neutralized, feed the suspicion among many Afghans that their constitution will be the product of secret deals with warlords. Khalilzad denied that.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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