Loya jirga, Pashto for "grand council", is a centuries-old traditional meeting of leaders from different tribes and factions to discuss and settle national affairs. Unique to Afghanistan, the assembly brings together representatives from almost all of Afghanistan's ethnic and religious groups: Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, Turkmen, Baluch, Farsiwan, Nuristani, Sunni, Shi'a, Hindu and Sikh.
The institution is based on the Islamic "shura" or consultative assembly and is not a standing body of legislators - it meets to decide specific issues and then dissolves.
While generally perceived as a most basic forum for representative decision-making, the loya jirga is widely viewed as the best chance for Afghanistan to establish a legitimate leadership with a rule of law and prevent the country from slipping into the control of warlords and drug smugglers.
Afghan history has noted several important loya jirgas to solve inter-tribal disputes, choose leaders, adopt constitutions or declare war. One of the most famous dates back to 1747, when Pashtun tribal chiefs met to elect a king. Deadlocked after nine days of debate, the loya jirga chose the only man who had not spoken a word -- Ahmad Shah Durrani, who founded the state of Afghanistan.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, attempts were made to use the institution to legitimize regimes of Soviets but failed. The last full loya jirga was in 1973 when Ex-king Mohammed Zahir Shah was dethroned after a coup d'etat.
After the fall of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban leadership in 2001, Afghan factions met in Germany and called for an emergency loya jirga. The results of the meeting, outlined in the Bonn Agreement, established an interim Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai and set a course for governmental reform. The loya jirga was subsequently planned for June 10-16 in the capital of Kabul.
Despite the promise of a new beginning with the loya jirga, threats of violence and fears of vote-rigging are already threatening Afghanistan's shaky start towards a representative government.
A Different Kind of Election
Some 1,500 seats in the loya jirga are distributed to each province based on census figures. Deciding who will attend is a three-step process done primarily at the grassroots level.
Afghan leaders begin meeting in shuras at the local level to identify electors who will later vote for the final loya jirga delegates. Criteria for membership in a shura is unwritten and based on local hierarchies. The names of the electors are then given to Regional Observation Centers that house teams who will check and certify the electors against the requirements for loya jirga membership. Candidates must be at least 22 years old, have no links with terrorist organizations and have no associations with narcotics smugglers or war crimes.
Once the list of electors is complete, the candidates travel to regional centers and vote for whom among them will comprise the predetermined number of final delegates. If the regional observers conclude that the elections are not free and fair, they have the power to change the location of the voting. If no possibility exists for a free election, the observation centers have the authority to choose delegates.
A Special Independent Commission for the Convening of the Loya Jirga, known as the loya jirga commission, was established as part of the Bonn Agreement to outline procedures for the meeting and ensure appropriate representation of women, minorities, scholars and other civil or professional groups. The commission is responsible for choosing almost 400 seats.
Traditionally, loya jirgas have been comprised almost wholly of men. But under the procedures set up by the loya jirga commission women are guaranteed at least 160 seats. Smaller numbers of seats are also guaranteed for Afghan refugees and nomads.
Officials with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan as well as the 4,650 -strong International Security Assistance Force are also aiding in the observation of the provincial elections and the loya jirga itself.
Rebuilding a nation
The primary responsibilities of the current loya jirga are to outline a new government and choose an executive leader. The new head of government could be a king, president, prime minister or a new entity of the assembly's choosing.
All deliberations must end by June 16, as per the Bonn Agreement. The transfer of authority to the new government could then potentially be done immediately after the assembly concludes. It will be the task of the new government leaders to write and adopt a constitution during its two-year term.
One of the most delicate questions facing the current loya jirga is the sharing of power between the ethnic majority Pashtun tribe and the minority Tajiks and Uzbeks of the Northern Alliance. Regional experts expect a major debate between these groups for control of three pivotal positions in the new administration: the ministries of defense, interior and foreign relations.
Meanwhile, threats of violence from regional warlords and terrorist groups interested in either disrupting or discrediting the loya jirga loom large. Despite the influence of foreign monitors, some regional leaders are calling for a boycott of the loya jirga believing that is unfairly controlled by certain ethnic groups.