The assembly, or loya jirga as it is known in Afghanistan, narrowly avoided collapse during three weeks of tumultuous and sometimes rancorous debate over the power of the central government, the role of the presidency, protection of ethnic minorities, the role of religion in government and the rights of women.
In the end the assembly approved a system of government with a strong president and a somewhat weaker two-chamber, national parliament. The document also gives women legal and political equality and says that no secular law can contradict the law of Islam. The country’s official name will be the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
“The 502 delegates from all over Afghanistan who have been assembled in a vast white tent in Kabul Polytechnic approved the Constitution by acclamation,” reported New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall. “They said prayers, then rose and stood in silent respect.”
The approved plan was backed by current Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. President Bush.
Karzai reportedly attempted to soothe the feelings of some ethnic and regional minorities, who had at times complained that proceedings were dominated by members of the majority Pashtun tribe.
“It is a Constitution of all the country,” Karzai reportedly told the delegates. “None of you is the loser; none of you is the winner. It is a success for us all, for all the people of Afghanistan.”
The new Constitution reportedly names all of the country’s ethnic minorities and gives them the right to teach and use their own languages. Some Pashtun delegates had wanted to name Pashto Afghanistan’s official language.
“It’s the first time in the history of Afghanistan that we take a step for the real power of the people,” Karzai said. “In this Constitution, you gave the right for other languages to be studied, and it’s a good creation for all the people.”
U.S. and international diplomats reportedly helped broker many of the compromises that led to the charter’s final passage. The Bush administration has said it considers a democratic government vital to Afghanistan’s survival.
“I congratulate the people of Afghanistan on the adoption of their new Constitution,” President Bush said in a statement. “This document lays the foundation for democratic institutions and provides a framework for national elections in 2004. 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.”
Some observers, such as U.N. special representative for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi, said the real tests of the new Afghanistan’s ability to become a full democracy are ahead. Full elections are to be held in six months.
Brahimi said heavily armed regional warlords and lawlessness in many parts of the country still pose a threat to the country’s stability. Still, Brahimi told assembly delegates they should be proud of the new constitution.
“Is the Constitution perfect? Probably not,” Brahimi said, according to The New York Times. “Will it be criticized? I feel it will be, inside Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan. But you have every reason to be proud and see this as a new source of hope.”