Karzai weathers power struggle, but at a price

Strong presidency will be part of new Afghan government, but Islamists gain bargaining power.

Hamid Karzai is on a roll. A majority of the 502 delegates to Afghanistan's constitutional convention now favors the strong presidential system that Mr. Karzai is pushing.

The emerging consensus is a big win for Karzai and for the United States, which installed the ethnic Pashtun clan leader in the presidential palace after the fall of the Taliban two years ago.

Potential hurdles in drafting a blueprint for the future of Afghanistan remain: the roles of Islam and human rights - particularly women's rights.

The constitutional loya jirga, or grand assembly, has turned out better than anticipated for Karzai, who withstood a challenge from warlords and royalists looking to dilute the president's power. But some observers warn that Karzai has opened the constitution to greater Islamic influence by making deals with hard-liners like Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, a warlord whose views mirror those of the Taliban.

The current draft of the constitution, which could be approved as soon as Friday, would give the president the power to rule by administrative decree and to appoint judges and governors, with little legislative oversight. Karzai plans to run for president next year - but only if the office is not weakened in the final version.

Karzai's direct appointment of 52 delegates to the loya jirga helped foil an attempt at the outset to rewrite the draft to distribute power under a parliamentary system.

Early last week, when a group of delegates, most from the Jamiat Islami party, protested the appointments, Mr. Sayyaf defended Karzai, in starkly Islamic terms, as the country's "emir." Convention chairman Sibghatullah Mujaddedi seconded the theme, telling the rebelling delegates that as "ululamr,'' or emir, Karzai had a right to appoint his own delegates.

Emir means prince, or commander, in Arabic. Afghanistan's ousted Taliban government called itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

"Certainly, it is not a large group [of delegates] that is seeking an emirate system,'' US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said last week. "I think there are very few. It is surprising that there is this type of support.''

While Karzai's draft constitution does not create the position of emir, it does grant the president wide powers with few checks and balances. Critics say this concentration of power could lead in the future to a repressive state or a theocracy.

"It is a mistake to begin a democracy using the language of an emirate, an Islamic dictatorship,'' says Husain Ramoz, an analyst at the US-funded National Democratic Institute. "It's a losing game.''

"Sayyaf is a fundamentalist,'' says a Western diplomat in Kabul. "He supports a caliphate, he wants an emir, and this system resembles that in a sense. It is inevitable - sooner or later it is going to lead to a dictatorship.''

Many who fear the power of a strong presidency were pushed to support it by an incident Dec. 17, when a 26-year-old female social worker, Malalai Joya, rose from her seat in the separate women's section of the loya jirga to denounce the country's mujahideen leaders as "criminals.'' Ms. Joya was referring to the deadly infighting - including the shelling of Kabul - between anti-Soviet rebel leaders following the withdrawal of the Red Army in 1989.

Sayyaf and others replied she had sinned against Islam. There were calls from the convention floor for Joya to "repent,'' and she was placed under United Nations protection.

"I was in favor of a mixed system, with a strong parliament,'' says delegate Soraya Parlika. "After the Malalai Joya incident I am supporting the presidential system. I don't want a mujahideen parliament running the country.''

Many who opposed Karzai's draft constitution, particularly Northern Alliance leaders in the government, were won over by debate, lobbying, and political horse-trading in the early days of the loya jirga, which began Dec. 15.

For example, Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim, the leader of the ethnic Tajik mujahideen who dominate the government, was considering whether to challenge Karzai. Now, "he agrees with Karzai and he supports a presidential system,'' says Brigadier Mar Jan, a spokesman for Mr. Fahim.

"In Afghanistan it is mostly a matter of what people sense you are promising or sense you are threatening," explained a Western diplomat who asked not to be named. "Fahim sensed he would be given the post of vice president" after elections next year.

Karzai's triumph was far from assured. In the days before the assembly opened, it appeared that fundamentalists, with a majority of the delegates, would mount a significant challenge.

There were irregularities on both sides, Western and Afghan observers say. All parties have denied trading cash for votes. "It is absolutely not true that there was general or widespread rigging," said UN Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi.

Then there were the 52 delegates Karzai directly appointed to the loya jirga. The appointments were meant to add constitutional lawyers and other specialists to the undereducated field of delegates. Karzai's list, however, is dominated by powerbrokers and symbolic figures like Wali Masood, brother of slain Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masood.

"Two or three of those people are experts and the rest are just his supporters,'' says Abdul Hafiz Mansoor, the Jamiat Islami standard bearer.

Another factor in Karzai's success was his ability to unite the Pashtuns, who make up 47 percent of the delegates, into a single block, even as the Tajiks fragmented.

Some delegates have complained "that the Pashtuns are throwing their weight around,'' one observer said.

"To my Tajik brothers I say, 'you will get the rights you are due and not more,'" said Abdul Hakeem Muneeb, a delegate whose views were typical of many Pashtuns.

But such ethnic unity could be strained if fundamentalists use the loya jirga's final plenary sessions as a vehicle for strengthening the role of Islamic law in the constitution, daring delegates to appear un- Islamic by publicly opposing them.

Many delegates have said that sections of the draft constitution that support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will have to be modified, on the grounds that portions of the declaration are contrary to local customs and Islamic interpretation.

"Yes, of course I favor the rights of women, we support that, but only under Islam," says delegate Nader Khan Katawazi.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.