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Afghanistan: Parliamentary Session Ends 30-Year Legislative Drought

The new People's Council is a historic first for women in Afghanistan (AFP) Prague, 19 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- After three decades of war and bloodshed, and four years after the overthrow of the Taliban, Afghanistan inaugurated its new parliament today.

The ceremony -- held under tight security -- was attended by President Hamid Karzai, former King Mohammad Zahir Shah, and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney.

Karzai swore in 351 new legislators, including former warlords and Taliban officials, former communists, technocrats, and women.

Karzai's recited the oath of office in Afghanistan's two official languages, Dari and Pashto.

During an emotional speech accompanying the event, Karzai said that Afghanistan is rising triumphantly from the ashes of invasion. He paid his respects to those Afghans who had died for the cause of Afghan freedom and said they will be never forgotten.

"This land has resisted for thousands of years, and it will remain standing for all eternity," Karzai said. "Respected representatives of the Afghan people, with the formation of the National Assembly, the main pillars of the Afghan government are now completed under our constitution."

Karzai said the parliament is crucial for the establishment of a safe and secure country, but he added that much work remains.

NATO and the European Union today hailed the parliament's first session. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called it "a visible sign that the democratic process is taking hold." The EU called the inauguration a "historic occasion."

Little Experience

But some analysts believe it could take months before the parliament will be able to fully perform its duties. Many of the legislators have little or no experience in politics and scant knowledge about how a parliament functions.

In a recent interview, Joanna Nathan, a Kabul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), acknowledged that the deputies will need help, but she said she remains optimistic.

"Politics is a part of everyday life in Afghanistan, so I think it's not right to say that they are completely inexperienced in politics," Nathan said. "But, yes, they are going to need a lot of support to begin with, learning their way. Some of them will be illiterate, but I’m not too worried. Leaders will emerge there pretty quick, and they'll know what they are doing. They know about politics."

She said the new parliament represents an opportunity for people from all over Afghanistan to have their voices heard.

"Until now, there has obviously only been an executive," Nathan said. "And we really see that there is a chance to pull together a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds, perhaps from different factions in the past, from different sectarian groups, getting some women in there obviously and bringing them all together to give them a voice on the future direction of Afghanistan."

Seyed Abdollah Faramarz, editor in chief of the Afghan newspaper "The Voice of the Dawn," told RFE/RL in a recent interview that, despite its shortcomings, the new parliament is a step forward.

"Despite all the problems, we have one hope: If the parliament will be able to have an influence on the system to a certain degree, to have a role in reforming the bureaucratic system of the country, it would be a good step," Faramarz said. "Until now, there was a gap, and the government was acting alone. It is better than not having a parliament, and it is a positive step."

Many have expressed concern over the bloody pasts of some of the new members of parliament, including Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a powerful former commander who has been accused of war crimes by the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch.

Sayyaf said today that the parliament "represents the reality of Afghanistan."

Human Rights Watch's Asia research director, Sam Zarifi, is quoted by news agencies as saying that "lots of Afghans are disappointed and cynical because they feel like people who perpetrated serious human rights abuses have been allowed back in the parliament."

Historic Role For Women

For others, the convening of parliament is a day of hope, especially for the country's women. Twenty-five percent of the seats in the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), the lower house of the parliament, were reserved for female candidates.

Malalai Joya, a female legislator who caused an uproar early in the country's post-Taliban transition by denouncing the role of powerful mujahedin figures, has vowed to stand up against those warlords who have been elected to parliament.

"Today, our people are concerned that the election took place in an armed environment, and that is why our people and the international community should not have expected democratic elections, which didn't take place," Joya said. "We witnessed that those with money, power, and backed by foreign countries came into the parliament. Their presence pollutes our parliament as a legislative source. But we shouldn't forget that some real and true representatives of people also came into this parliament. But, unfortunately, they are in a minority."

Shukrai Barkzai, another female deputy, told Radio Free Afghanistan today that the members of the new parliament should respect new ideas, work to pass effective laws, and teach nonbelievers about the value of democracy.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.