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Loya Jirga Descends Into Chaos

The first day of the Loya Jirga ends amid farcical scenes with the organisers refusing to confirm suggestions that delegates had appointed Hamid Karzai head of state in a rather unorthodox manner.
By Anthony Borden

An historic piece of political theatre at the opening of the Loya Jirga descended into chaos as members of the commission that convened the emergency conference refused to clear up their earlier suggestions that Hamid Karzai, the favourite to lead the new transitional administration, had been appointed to the post without a formal ballot.

The confused proceedings will fuel suspicions that the Loya Jirga is a stitch up. The gathering has been widely seen as an historic exercise in democracy. Commission chair Mohammad Ismaeel Qasimyar described it as an expression of the people's "desire to participate in the process of determining their political future" . But the opening, a day late, seemed to give the 1600 or so delegates on the floor no real options to debate.

Speaking at a packed end of day press conference, Qasimyar at first said the warm reception given by the floor to brief speeches by interim administration leader Hamid Karzai and former king Mohammed Zahir Shah showed that the Loya Jirga had approved them as head of state and father of the nation, respectively.

As outlined at press conferences the previous evening at the US Embassy and the royal residence, Zahir Shah backed Karzai's leadership bid, while Karzai, proposed the ex-king as Baba, or national father figure, a largely symbolic role, which includes bestowing honours and performing other ceremonial functions.

"These speeches were warmly welcomed. It was clear from that that all [the delegates at the Loya Jirga] agreed. They freely gave their vote," Qasimyar explained, speaking in English. "It means a confirmation. . . They showed their applause..."

Throughout their speeches at the gathering, both Karzai and Qasimyar referred repeatedly and pointedly to Zahir Shah as "Baba" - a title which had not been debated by the floor but which the commission chair continued to use at the subsequent press conference.

Only three days ago, the assembly looked set to be a dramatic, if chaotic, clash of interests and unresolved political conflicts, with the untested 1,500 delegates on the floor - a broadly representative combination of officials, the elite, warlords, shopkeepers and tribal farmers from around the country - having the opportunity to play a decisive role.

While Karzai was widely tipped to retain his leadership, other candidates were in the frame, and a Pashtun grassroots movement was also backing the ex-king as head of state. Meanwhile, ethnic Tajiks from the Panjshir valley, who control the power ministries of defence, home and foreign affairs, as well as the intelligence services, had publicly resisted the idea of relinquishing any seats.

This "confusion", according to US presidential envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, led the Loya Jirga commission to postpone the opening for a day.

With heavy US involvement, the ex-king publicly withdrew his candidacy, declaring his support for Karzai. Subsequently, Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president whose candidacy had been made public by posters plastered throughout Kabul, also withdrew from the leadership race.

At the Loya Jirga itself, after speeches by Qasimyar and UN Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi calling for national unity, Zahir Shah formally opened the session by proposing Karzai as leader of the new transitional administration. Karzai spoke next, with his detailed proposal for the role for the ex-king.

The surprise for the day was the next speaker, Yunus Qanuni. Interior minister in the current interim administration, he is one of the key Panjshir power ministers over whom so much speculation had ranged. In a brief, but elegant delivery, he declared his support for national unity above personal position before shocking all listeners by resigning.

The outline of a compromise position, long trailed, was now fully in place - the ex-king elevated to a ceremonial post, Karzai in charge of the new administration, and an adequate reshuffling of Pansjhiris in crucial positions to be acceptable to the Pashtun majority on the floor while leaving in place the controversial defence minister, Mohammed Fahim - a former deputy to the revered Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud who publicly indicated he would not stand

down.

On the day, however, Qasimyar's enthusiasm to conclude the neat package - he stated a few days ago he thought the Loya Jirga should be able to wrap up in only a few days - got the better of him.

The rules and procedures clearly state that a central task of the gathering is the "election" of a new leader, and that voting, unless agreed otherwise, should be held in a secret ballot.

Yet asked repeated by the press as to whether Karzai was in fact already state president, and the ex-king formally confimed as Baba, Qasimyar refused to give a yes or no answer. "If [a proposal] is endorsed by such a gathering, that gives it official power," he said. He also indicated that he was aware of no other leadership candidates who had already secured the required 150 signatures to confirm a candidacy.

Another member of the commission, Omar Samad, said the situation was not clear. "Different people have different interpretations of what happened. This is something we have to resolve."

One delegate, Sultan Ahmed Baheen, said, "The Loya Jirga accepted Karzai's candidacy for president. And I think the fact that he was applauded means that the candidature will be successful."

Another delegate, Ashraf Ghani, said Karzai was head of state by dint of the fact that he was head of the interim administration, which still has 11 days left of its original six month mandate.

Amid the confusion, another procedural rule had apparently also been fudged. Sessions, according to the commission, are set to last until 6 pm local time, or can be extended at the request of the majority. Toward the close of the session, a woman delegate stood up to a microphone on the floor, saying, "We don't want to finish it." But she was not given an opportunity to speak.

Following a third Karzai speech from the podium, another woman stood up before the microphone several minutes before the determined adjournment time, prompting delegates to call out, "Jalaledin should make a speech."

Around two hours after the Loya Jirga session, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah sought to clear up the confusion over the appointments. He said "the decision to call the ex-king Baba" had been taken by the Loja Jirga and "the main decisions will be taken up from tomorrow" - an apparent reference to the election of Karzai to the post of head of state.

Anthony Borden is IWPR Executive Director