Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Moderate Chosen to Chair Gathering

Elder statesman with impeccable mujahedin credentials may exert moderating influence on Loja Jirga proceedings.
By Danish Karokhel

After long debate, a moderate leader and ally of President Hamed Karzai has been chosen to chair the Constitutional Loya Jirga, the assembly called to debate Afghanistan’s new constitution. Former president Sibghatullah Mujaddidi – who defeated three rivals – has a reputation as a mediator.


The post is an important one, since there is a need for a guiding hand to control proceedings given the wide scope for interpreting the Loya Jirga guidelines.


Observers are hoping that Mujaddidi – who is well-known for his mediating abilities - will use his talent for compromise to bring together the many opposing interests debating a new constitution for the country.


He won a convincing victory, taking 252 of the 489 votes cast in a ballot held at the end of December 14, day one of the assembly.


Hafiz Mansoor, who is on the editorial board of the Payam-e Mujahid newspaper and recently wrote a book called Karzai Signs Without Reading, was runner-up in the ballot, with 154 votes. Unlike the winner, Mansoor is vocally anti-Karzai and anti-Western.


Mujaddidi’s close ties to Karzai date from mujahedin times when the latter was a member his National Liberation Front of Afghanistan, one of the main factions in mujahedin times.


The 75-year-old owes his presence at the gathering to presidential patronage, being one of 50 handpicked delegates.


Having stood down in the contest to head the Emergency Loya Jirga last June, Mujaddidi this time accepted the post and appealed to the 500 delegates to help bring stability to Afghanistan.


“We have defeated two foreign powers [British Empire and the Soviet Union] and now we must show the international community that we are able to make a peaceful country.”


Born into a respected family of religious scholars, Mujaddidi led the National Liberation Front which fought communist rule and Soviet occupation in the Eighties, with followers mainly in the Pashtun south.


Elected the head of a seven-party government-in-exile” in Pakistan in 1989, Mujaddidi served as Afghan president for two months in 1992, after the mujahedin took control of Kabul.


But he was not associated with the years of internecine fighting that followed, and instead became known for his ability to negotiate between the many quarrelling factions.


A fierce critic of Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan, he was forced to leave his sanctuary there to live in the West for a number of years.


Some critics see Mujaddidi’s changes of position over the years as a sign of flightiness. In the past he expressed support both for the late Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and the latter’s bitter rival, Hizb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Like many other mujahedin leaders with a Pashtun following, he also vacillated over supporting the Taliban.


The vote for a chairperson followed a long debate over the procedures to be used at the Loya Jirga, with several speakers expressing outrage that the interim administration’s bureaucracy had laid down how the gathering was to be run. In particular, they objected to the Loya Jirga’s secretaries being selected by the chairman rather than by a vote.


Others did not want to see the gathering divide into 10 groups to discuss different sections of the draft document but rather wanted the full assembly to discuss it clause by clause.


When the vote for chairman finally took place several hours after early-evening prayers, at least 13 delegates abstained, remaining in their seats while the secret ballot took place. Pro-monarchy candidate Azizullah Wasefi, from Kandahar, came third with 43 votes, and the Kabul-based head of the Lawyer’s Association, Abdul Kabir Ranjbir trailed in fourth with 29 votes.


After a vote was held to fill the posts of deputy chairperson, it was decided to appoint four deputies instead of the two that had been envisaged. This was because three of the 15 candidates had performed so well – Dr Mohammad Azam Dadfar, Qayamuddin Kashaf and Mirwais Yaseeni.


Mujaddidi ordered that a fourth post be filled by a woman, and chose Safia Siddiqi from Nangarhar, who had received 65 votes in the ballot.


Danish Karokhel is a local staff editor working on IWPR’s Constitutional Loya Jirga reporting project.


More IWPR's Global Voices