Friday, November 7, 2003

On Monday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was presented with red-bound copies of a draft of his country’s new constitution, amid well-deserved ceremonial pomp. The move represents a triumph of political balance and effective horse trading. The ultimate challenge lies in the approval of the document next month and its application and enforcement, but the drafting of the constitution is an important achievement which didn’t come easily.

The document took a year to produce, was released two months late and required the 35-member team that produced it to overcome fierce disagreements. The draft will be presented next month for approval to a Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, of the kind that established the rule of Mr. Karzai. The assembly’s 500 members — tribal and local leaders — will come from across the country.

The most important issues in the 160-page document involve how Afghanistan will be balancing hard-line calls for institutionalized Islamic law and the more secular leanings of its urban people. Also critical is how Kabul will win the cooperation of tribal leaders by giving them a role in centralized rule. The document appears to have calibrated the first issue effectively. The draft also envisions considerable centralized rule that may be difficult to enforce.

The draft constitution will likely be rejected by hard-line Islamists and Western secularists, but it appears to reflect the views of most Afghans, who don’t want a return to Taliban-style rule, but want their government to have some kind of Islamic nature. The draft’s first article states that “Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic,” but it doesn’t enshrine the harsh brand of Islamic law employed by the Taliban. The document also says, “The religion of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam. Followers of other religions are free to perform their religious ceremonies within the limits of the provisions of law.”

The Bush administration welcomed the release of the draft with praise. “The public issuance of this very important draft, the product of consultation and dialogue among Afghans, marks an important milestone in Afghanistan’s development,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

The Afghan president will wield considerable power, and has the power to appoint one-third of the parliament’s upper house and to name judges and military officers. Half of the president’s appointments to the upper house must be women, and at least one woman must be elected from each of Afghanistan’s 32 provinces in the lower house. The draft invokes constitutional checks and balances. The two-house legislature can impeach the president, and the draft bars the president from dissolving Congress. This balance of power appears adequate, but it remains to be seen if powerful tribal leaders will feel they are sufficiently represented in Kabul. The constitution establishes that nationwide elections are scheduled for June. This would seem to be an optimistic deadline.

The process of establishing a constitution for Afghanistan was a cooperative effort, and will force tribal leaders to think about the institutional structures for their country. It should be heralded as such.

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