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Parliamentary System A Risky Solution For Afghanistan

An Afghan election commission worker awaits the opening of ballot-box seals for an audit of the presidential runoff vote at a counting center in Kabul on July 17.
An Afghan election commission worker awaits the opening of ballot-box seals for an audit of the presidential runoff vote at a counting center in Kabul on July 17.

For years, Hamid Karzai has wielded tremendous power as the president of Afghanistan -- all while heading off discontent by doling out government positions to prominent members of long-warring ethnic groups and factions.

With the two-term president leaving office, however, a nasty dispute between Karzai's possible successors showed that the system he so carefully managed would need to be altered to keep the country together.

Rival candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani each claimed victory following the June 14 presidential runoff, raising the specter of a protracted battle for power, an impending coup, and even civil war.

To move on, something had to give.

As negotiators scrambled to find a solution that would keep Afghanistan from breaking apart, the two candidates were able to agree on the need for an overhaul of the political system.

The presidential system, forged from the American model, would be replaced by a French-style parliamentary system in which the president's role would be checked by those of an empowered prime minister.

In theory, the formation of such a parliamentary system should enshrine a more equitable distribution of power. But it promises to be a risky and protracted undertaking, and even if the transition to a parliamentary system is a smooth one, there is no guarantee it will work.

A political restructuring could be a "blessing and a curse," says Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

"You risk institutionalizing Afghanistan’s divisions by effectively empowering two leaders instead of one," says Kugelman. "If they have differences, and yet more power, it could be much more difficult for them to govern in a successful and effective way."

Winner Can't Take All

The recent presidential runoff, pitting a Pashtun candidate (Ghani) against one who enjoys broad support from the country's powerful Tajik community (Abdullah), exposed the difficulties of finding consensus on a leader for the deeply divided and multiethnic country.

The current system suffers from being "too centralized" with "too much power of the state left in the hands of one individual," according to Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Kabul.

"There has to be some safety net for the loser," he adds. "[You have to make] sure that the losing side doesn't feel disenfranchised and doesn't face a winner-takes all situation."

Abdullah and Ghani agreed to implement the changes earlier this month. Pressed to work toward a national unity government, Abdullah's and Ghani's camps have been meeting regularly ro determine how to realize their vision for a new political framework.

Abdullah's second vice-presidential running mate, Mohammad Mohaqeq, has revealed details of the deal cut by the candidates. He tells RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that no matter who comes out on top in the vote count, the runner-up would be able to choose the "chief executive" of the new government.

After two years, the constitution would be amended to allow for a parliamentary system to be introduced. At that time, the chief executive post would effectively become that of the new prime minister.

The system outlined by Mohaqeq is similar to the political model used in France, where dual poles of power in the presidency and the parliament exist. The president and the prime minister, who is answerable only to the parliament, share power together.

Ghani's camp has refused to comment on the specifics of the deal, saying discussions are ongoing.

Drawn-Out Process

Talking about such drastic changes is one thing; implementing them is another. Numerous steps must be taken, and patience and commitment will be required to see the plan through to the end.

Appointing a "chief executive" to help share power and defuse the current crisis is done easily enough -- the president has the constitutional right to appoint and dismiss ministers and can create the post by presidential decree.

But to establish a prime minister position -- one with teeth and which cannot be dissolved by the president -- the constitution would need to be amended. For that to happen, a constitutional loya jirga, a traditional gathering of tribal elders, would need to ratify the changes. From there, parliament would need to sign off.

Here, too, the current presidential system carries significant influence. The president has the ability to handpick attendees of the jirga, potentially shaping the outcome of the gathering and helping determine what powers are conceded to a prime minister. This leaves ample room for future disagreements over the prime minister's role.

Complicating matters is that a loya jirga that has binding legal authority can only convene if there are elected district councils. No district-council elections have been held, making a constitutional loya jirga impossible for now, although there have been suggestions that they could be held in tandem with parliamentary elections slated for next year.

Can It Work?

Even if all the obstacles can be overcome, the big question is whether a parliamentary system is a workable long-term solution.

Abdullah is optimistic, saying political reform is needed first and foremost to end "autocracy." He believes a revamped system can devolve powers and close the gap between the people and the government.

Analyst Kugelman says the ingredients are there for the new system to work. Democracy is taking root, state institutions are growing in strength, ethnic and sectarian tensions are in check, and there is consensus on the issue, says Kugelman.

"The conditions on the ground are much more favorable to a parliamentary system than they would have been years ago, and than they are currently in countries like Iraq," he notes.

But there are dissenting voices as well, perhaps none louder than that of the man who spent more than a decade in the presidential office.

Outgoing president Karzai has strongly opposed changing to a parliamentary system, saying it could tear the country apart. In a recent interview with Voice of America, Karzai concluded simply that Afghanistan was not ready.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.