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Afghanistan: Official Discusses Expectations, Procedures For Afghan Loya Jirga

Work is progressing on the creation of an emergency Loya Jirga that will appoint Afghanistan's next government -- the transitional authority. Under the Bonn accords agreed in December, the transitional authority is due to take over power from interim leader Hamid Karzai's administration by 22 June. From Kabul, RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz examines the work of a 21-member committee that is setting the ground rules for the creation of the all-important Loya Jirga.

Kabul, 1 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The chairman of the committee that is forming Afghanistan's emergency Loya Jirga -- a grand council that will appoint the next Afghan government -- says he expects the Loya Jirga to start its work in early June.

Committee Chairman Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar announced his expectations yesterday at a press conference in Kabul that marked the first time he has publicly discussed details about the work of the committee.

Earlier reports had suggested that the Loya Jirga would be formed as early as 21 March -- the date of the solar New Year in Afghanistan. But Qasimyar outlined a timetable indicating that the Loya Jirga is unlikely to be inaugurated before the end of May.

"It will be in due time. It will be in early June. It is not decided yet, but since we have a time frame, within six months from 22 December [when the Bonn agreement was signed, it will be no later than 22 June.]"

Under the Bonn accords, Qasimyar's 21-member committee is drafting the rules on how the emergency Loya Jirga will be selected. Once the Loya Jirga appoints the transitional authority, that body will have an 18-month mandate to run the country. During that time, it will be tasked with drafting a new constitution for Afghanistan and setting the groundwork for direct elections.

So far, Qasimyar says there has been no final decision on how many representatives will participate in the emergency Loya Jirga. His committee also has not finalized details on how the representatives will be selected, although tradition dictates that tribal elders are responsible for selecting the participants.

Qasimyar told RFE/RL that there will be at least 500 people in the Loya Jirga -- including women and representatives from each of the 320 administrative districts in the country:

"The criteria [will] be based on the administrative units. So from each administrative unit there shall be [at least] one representative [in the Loya Jirga]. We might have more than one seat allocated to [a district] proportionate to the population."

Qasimyar went to great lengths to explain that his committee is not empowered to make direct appointments to the Loya Jirga. Rather, it will set the criteria for candidates and monitor some form of indirect election.

"What we are thinking of [for] the indirect elections, [is that] the people in a village will talk over [their ideas.] Let's have one representative [chosen] from [each village]. Let's say it's Friday prayers, and after prayers they have gathered in a mosque or [some other] place [to decide.]"

Qasimyar said the voting method under consideration would be for the delegates from each village or town in a region to participate in a secret ballot on who their choice of representative would be.

"They would gather to the center of the province. We would have balloting boxes, for instance. There would be a secret election. So [appointments to the Loya Jirga would be determined] out of the [votes of the] representatives of the villages [and towns]. The number of [of Loya Jirga representatives] that have been allocated [for each province] would come through this election."

But Moaiuddin Mehdi, a political analyst in Kabul who heads Aria Press, says that the process Qasimyar is proposing is full of potential pitfalls -- including the possibility that the delegates from villages who actually vote could be influenced by bribes or physical intimidation.

"This concern [about corruption in the process of forming the Loya Jirga] actually exists. In the past, [Afghanistan] had a defective democratic period. Influential people, using money and other methods [of coercion], would become representatives on the local councils. Concern about this still exists, but I do think that the standards expressed by the emergency committee to form the Loya Jirga should reduce this kind of corruption somewhat. But still, this concern exists."

Despite the weaknesses of the Loya Jirga process, Mehdi notes that conditions in Afghanistan make it impossible to conduct an election that would satisfy normal Western standards of a free and fair ballot. For now, he says appointing a transitional government remains the better option.

"The introduction and implementation of democracy in Afghanistan will be, by necessity, a long-term process. Undoubtedly, there are standards for democratic processes that are normal in the free world. But in this society, which is full of tension, it will not be possible to conduct elections according to those standards in such a short amount of time."

And despite its shortcomings, Mehdi said he remains optimistic about the use of a Loya Jirga to appoint the transitional authority.

"Undoubtedly, the Loya Jirga provides hope for the people of Afghanistan. After 30 years, it is the first time -- although perhaps in a defective way -- that the people of Afghanistan have an opportunity to express their opinions."

Noor Mohammad Qarqin, a representative of Afghanistan's ethnic Turkmen community who is a member of Qasimyar's committee, told RFE/RL he expects the Loya Jirga to include significantly more than 500 members.

"As yet, no decision has been made. But I think there will be between 700 to 1,200 people. All efforts are being made so that the people of Afghanistan will not say that they lack representation [on the Loya Jirga]. All effective efforts will be taken so that the people of Afghanistan will be able to send their real representatives to the Loya Jirga."

Qarqin says the committee already has collected a general pool of opinions from people in different parts of Afghanistan about the criteria for attaining seats on the Loya Jirga.

"For example, I've brought some letters from Ghor Province and from other districts that I've visited like Taiwara and Pasawand and some other districts. They say [that their Loya Jirga representative should be] a kind person, peace-loving and [politically] neutral -- without any racial, lingual, or ethnic prejudices. Or for example, [there is another request that] the person should be qualified and capable and should be kind-hearted, and that the process should be conducted openly and should be independent [from political parties] and should be done without [any interference] or military agitations [by armed factions.]"

Committee chair Qasimyar said his group also is working out details of a monitoring mechanism to ensure that the will of the people is properly represented.

"We shall have a mechanism of monitoring the process of election of the members of the Loya Jirga. And also, we will invite all those who are interested -- the international community who are interested -- to come and monitor. And of course, we shall have our [own] monitoring committees."

Qasimyar told RFE/RL that one possibility for monitoring the vote would be to divide Afghanistan's 32 provinces into seven or eight observation zones. He said members of his committee could then meet with local monitors in each zone to review the process.

Qasimyar said the criteria that eventually is approved by his committee will be published at least 10 weeks before the Loya Jirga is inaugurated -- a time frame that indicates it must be completed in the next few weeks.

Thomas Ruttig, a political affairs officer for the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan, told RFE/RL that there will not be an extension of the 22 June deadline for the interim administration to hand over power to a transitional authority.

Ruttig said the UN will ensure that Afghan authorities stick to the timetable created in Bonn.