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Afghanistan: Is A Strong President Needed?

About 500 Afghan delegates are assembled in Kabul this week for a Loya Jirga, or Grand National Assembly, designed to finalize Afghanistan's constitution. Opinions are divided between those in favor of the strong presidential system laid down in the draft and those favoring a parliamentary system to counterbalance the president.

Prague, 17 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's Loya Jirga is continuing debate over a new constitution that will pave the way for democratic elections in June.

Since its opening on 14 December, differences have emerged among the 502 delegates from around the country over whether extended presidential powers requested by Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai will be included in the constitution.

Karzai has said he will only stand in next year's presidential polls if the Loya Jirga approves the presidential system laid down in the draft document.

"In the current circumstances, Afghanistan needs a government that has only one [central] power source," Karzai said.

The draft put before the Loya Jirga foresees no post of prime minister and vests virtually unchallenged power in the president for a five-year term of office, renewable by one term. The legislative and judiciary branches have only limited, constraining roles.

Karzai has many supporters at the Loya Jirga. A female delegate explained at yesterday's session that in the past, Afghanistan's prime ministers have done little to defend the country's constitution.

"I propose a strong central presidential state. The parliament is useless for us. What did the prime minister do for the king over the course of three decades? Then when we had a president for one decade, what did the prime minister do for him? [Nothing.] So why should we expect something from a new prime minister? We want a strong central presidential state, and that's it," she said.

Haji Abdul Satar, a delegate from northeast Kunar, told France's AFP news agency: "Now that Afghanistan has come out of three decades of war and conflict and everyone is armed, the only way to govern this country and put things on the right path is to have a strong presidential system."

Haji Ghulam Khan, from the eastern Laghman Province, noted that a strong parliamentary system can only be successful if the country has strong political parties, which Afghanistan lacks. He told AFP: "Those who claim they represent political parties in Afghanistan are all armed militia factions who lack political skills and would lead the country toward crisis again."

Mohammad Rafiq Sher, from the western Herat Province, tried to offer reassurance that the president is not granted absolute power under the current draft.

"I see that the presidential system is better for the people and their security as well as for the stability of our country. It is not a system which gives the president unconditional power. There is no such thing. The power of president is going to be limited by the parliament. He will not have unlimited power," Sher said.

Nevertheless, critics say the draft concentrates too much power in the hands of the president, saying they would prefer a prime ministerial post or at least a parliament with real teeth to counter-balance presidential powers.

Mustafa Atamadi, a delegate from central Oruzgan Province, told AFP that a government with a strong parliament would guarantee transparency, accountability, and would ensure the people's rule.

Habiba, a female elected delegate from Kabul, points out that the constitution is not supposed to respond to immediate needs.

"I see that in the current situation in Afghanistan, until the disarmament is completed and for the stability of the country, the presidential system would be helpful. But we want to have a parliamentary system because this constitution is not for one or two days or years, it is for [many] years," Habiba said.

Opposition has come from the Northern Alliance, a powerful coalition dominated by ethnic Tajiks which helped the United States drive the Taliban from power in late 2001 and is represented in the current government. It has campaigned for prime minister.

Reuters news agency reported that delegates -- mainly supporters of the Northern Alliance -- interrupted today's session several times, asking for a vote on the type of future regime before entering into full debate of the draft. They also accused Karzai of sweetening the deal for opponents with promises of influential positions in the postelection government.

Some analysts say Northern Alliance leaders are worried they could be marginalized by Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun. They also argue that Karzai can expect support from his fellow Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group.

But Marina Ottaway, senior associate in the democracy and rule of law project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, notes that opposition to the draft comes from various groups with different motivations.

"For example, there is opposition from liberal elements who really would like a more democratic system. Then there is criticism that comes from the Islamist element, [who] would like an even greater role for the religious element to ensure that the laws of Afghanistan are in line with the Shari'ah law. Finally, there is opposition of the warlords from the Northern Alliance, who of course would like a more decentralized system that recognizes their authority in the provinces they control," Ottaway said.

Ottaway stresses that the Loya Jirga is an ad hoc body that has just been constituted and which leaves uncertain how the allegiances of various groups will divide up in the end.

The debate on the constitution is expected to last for weeks, although Karzai has said it must not take more than 10 days.

(Sultan Sarwar from RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)