TOPICS > Politics

New Era of Democracy

January 5, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: It took three weeks of intense debate, but Afghanistan now has a new Constitution. The document was approved yesterday by that country’s council, or loya jirga.

The final vote came just two days after the council’s leader warned the whole process could collapse amid ethnic divisions. The new charter has been in the works since late 2001 when Afghan leaders gathered in Bonn, Germany, shortly after the fall of the Taliban government.

Under the mammoth white tent at Kabul Polytechnic Institute Sunday, Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, congratulated the 502 delegates on their achievement.

PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI (Translated): This Constitution is made and this Constitution is for everybody, for all Afghan nations. In this meeting nobody has gained something, and nobody has lost something. You are all equal and you made the Constitution for all Afghan people, and this is the mirror of all nations. All of you stand successfully in your job, and this success goes to all Afghan people.

TERENCE SMITH: The 162-article Constitution establishes the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and defines Islam as its “sacred religion,” gives the directly elected president sweeping powers, awards a two-chamber parliament oversight powers, and grants equal rights to men and women. While most delegates where happy with the Constitution’s final draft, some, members of the mostly northern tribes, criticized it for giving the president too much control.

In Washington, President Bush welcomed the outcome, saying in a statement “A democratic Afghanistan will serve the interests and just aspirations of all of the Afghan people and help ensure that terror finds no further refuge in that proud land.”

The new Constitution calls for democratic elections in six months.

For more, we’re joined by phone by Carlotta Gall, Kabul bureau chief of The New York Times. Carlotta, welcome to the broadcast. This whole thing seemed to be in great jeopardy, and now a Constitution has been produced. What was the key that made it possible?

CARLOTTA GALL: Well, I think right up to the last minute, just a few days ago, the chairman said if we don’t get an agreement tomorrow, we’ll tell the world that we have failed. So I think it was a nail-biting experience for everyone right to the last minute, just because there’s so many issues that came up.

You have to remember that this country has been at war for nearly a quarter of a century, so every issue, from fighting the Communists and fighting the Taliban to all the ethnic rivalries and all the anger against the warlords and the fighters, everything came out. So it was a huge amount of to and fro on every item.

And it took a full three weeks to get through it all. But I think at the same time, there was a great desire among the Afghans, who came from all over the country — all this loya jirga, 500 of them came — a great desire to do something for the country and to set some law in stone that could be the beginning of a new era.

TERENCE SMITH: The Constitution calls for an Islamic republic. What does that mean, in terms of the application of Islamic law?

CARLOTTA GALL: Well, the people who drew up the first draft, they were a bunch of experts. They said we need this name just to reassure all the Afghans. You have to remember that at least 80 percent of Afghans are illiterate and very religious, so they’re very … they’re all Muslims, and they’re very firm in their belief.

And so, they needed some sort of reassurance. There was some fear among a lot of them when the American troops arrived and kicked out the Taliban that this meant that we would now have a secular society or something. So the name was described by many commissioners as that, as just a reassurance.

Probably more important as a guide is Article III, which says that the religion of the state is Islam, and no law will be carried out that is contrary to the beliefs and provisions of Islam, so it’s really a country that will be fundamental in its belief and its following of Islam.

At the same time, they’ve brought in a civic law, so it’s going to be, I think, a tussle between the religious conservatives and the more secular technocrats. But I think in the Constitution, they found some sort of balance.

TERENCE SMITH: On another sensitive issue, the Constitution calls for equal rights for women, and even sets aside a certain number of seats in the parliament to be filled by women. I wonder what you think of that, and how that has gone down?

CARLOTTA GALL: Well, it’s very interesting, because, you know, women’s activists wanted to see even more in the Constitution, but they were pleased to get this explanation of citizens in the draft. It was named “All Citizens are Equal.”

And then, in the amendment, it was spelled out, “The citizens of Afghanistan, whether man or woman…” so it really means now that no Afghan cleric or man can pretend that the women are not legal citizens of the country. So it sits there in writing, which makes a lot of them happy. Twenty-five percent of the lower house of Parliament is reserved for women.

That’s an incredible amount, which you don’t even see in European parliaments. So some of the women were saying at the end of the loya jirga, “We have arrived. We now have recognition. Our participation in society is recognized.”

TERENCE SMITH: There are also explicit recognitions of the different minorities, both in terms of language, which will be permitted in those areas, and in their role. This, I assume, was a key concession as well.

CARLOTTA GALL: It was very interesting, because it came up quite late in the three-week debate, but it became very passionate and emotional and quite divisive, because, of course, during the wars, there has been a lot of ethnic rivalry, and certainly in the civil war, we saw factions forming along ethnic lines.

And this suddenly came up, and I think some politicians used it because it was emotional. But what took over and what was fascinating was that the people, the ordinary delegates, really took over the debate and insisted on it. And in the end, they won rights, which makes it a very forward- looking Constitution.

They’ve got … every ethnic group is named as part of the nation, and then the ones that have their own language, they have been given rights to have that as an official language in their area, so they’ll be able to have schools and education and publications in those languages, which is an amazing step for all of them.

TERENCE SMITH: Finally, Carlotta, the Constitution calls for elections later this year, in about six months. Given the security situation in the country, is it feasible? Can you envision it?

CARLOTTA GALL: Well, it’s looking very difficult. They just started registration, and they’ve registered about 200,000 people so far, in a country of, you know, nearly 20 million. On the other hand, I think there’s enormous enthusiasm and pressure from the West to keep pushing this through and to help. So I think the ambition is to have presidential elections by, if not by June, at least by September, October.

TERENCE SMITH: Carlotta Gall, thanks so much for bringing us up to date.

CARLOTTA GALL: My pleasure.