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Afghanistan: Loya Jirga Said To Be Nearing Agreement On New Constitution

Afghanistan's Constitutional Loya Jirga continued its sessions today in an effort to ratify the country's draft constitution. Reports indicate the assembly could reach agreement later this week.

Prague, 23 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After 10 days of debate, Afghanistan's Loya Jirga seems to be moving toward ratification of the country's future constitution.

By tomorrow, a Reconciliation Committee is expected to try to unite the views of the more than 500 delegates in attendance. The delegates -- representing all regions of Afghanistan, as well as its ethnic groups and minorities -- have broken into 10 groups to discuss the draft. The full assembly is then expected to vote on the constitution.

Bashir Ahmad, a delegate from Lowgar Province, today supported a statement yesterday by an aide to Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai predicting that the Loya Jirga could reach agreement by the end of this week:

"I hope that if not by Thursday [25 December], then by Friday, or Saturday, the Loya Jirga will end," Ahmad said.

Delegates have reportedly reached agreement on the most contentious issue of the current Loya Jirga -- the issue of presidential powers. Ahmad says most of the delegates are in favor of a strong presidential system, as envisaged in the draft constitution proposed by Karzai. However, he adds, a strong parliament also is being discussed to counterbalance presidential powers.

"As far as I know, the majority of the delegates believe that in the current situation, a strong presidential system is in Afghanistan's interests because right now there is no central power in the country. But next to [a strong presidency], we want a strong parliament so the power is shared between the president and the parliament. And the majority of the [delegates] support this system," Ahmad said.

Many warlords, factional commanders, and former mujahedin commanders favor a parliamentary system, with a president and prime minister who would share power. Karzai on 20-21 December repeated that he would only stand in future presidential elections if the Loya Jirga approves the strong presidential system proposed in the draft.

According to the presidential decree on the Loya Jirga, final approval of the draft constitution will be by simple majority. Introducing a new article requires a two-thirds majority.

The issue of the role of Islam in the new constitution had been expected to cause heated debate. But RFE/RL regional analyst Amin Tarzi, who specializes in Afghanistan, says other issues ended up taking center stage.

"Since 1923, when the first constitution was drafted, the most contentious and most divisive issue was the role of Islam, and everybody thought that would be the same here. But the issue of the power of the president has taken center stage. And secondly, of course, you know the disagreements by some delegates -- especially female delegates -- that they have not been given enough time and representation [in the constitution have taken precedence] and also [the actions of] one specific person -- Miss [Malalai] Joya, who attacked the former mujahedin," Tarzi said.

Last week, Joya, from the western Farah Province, denounced factional leaders and the mujahedin as "criminals" and called for some of them to be put on trial for plunging the country into four years of civil war between 1992 and 1996.

"Shari'a has been respected, but the laws of the country will not be based on Shari'a. Therefore, this constitution will be a balanced constitution and quite similar to the constitution of 1964 and the ones after that, which basically adheres to the Islamic nature of Afghanistan but allows the laws -- the criminal laws, most of the family laws -- to be based on secular law. So, if that goes through, the fact that not much talk is being done about it is a victory for those who are looking for Afghanistan to have a forward-looking, more secular constitution," Tarzi said.

The draft constitution has been criticized by human rights groups for not specifically including the rights of women. Many female delegates demanded that equal rights with men be explicitly written into the draft.

Soraya Parlika is one of about 100 female delegates to the Loya Jirga. She told RFE/RL's Afghan Service that many of the committees have supported these demands, but that the vote of the full assembly on the issue is not clear.

"Women from many committees told me that they would like to include the equal rights of women and men in the draft, where before they were referred to simply as 'citizens of Afghanistan.' What will happen in the Reconciliation Committee and then in the full assembly is not clear. But women have decided to defend their rights at any price," Parlika said.

A new constitution is intended to pave the way for Afghanistan's first democratic elections, tentatively scheduled for June. Tarzi says implementation of the constitution will depend on the security and economic situation in the country:

"The true test will be what the people will do. My view is -- and hopefully for Afghanistan -- is if the economic [and] security situations get better, then people will just accept this constitution because it is a very forward-looking, good constitution. However, if those two issues -- economic and security -- go sour or do not improve, let's say in a few months, then this constitution may become the victim of another upheaval. So let us see what happens right now. It is a constitution written with hope rather than with a good plan," Tarzi said.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in 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.