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Afghanistan's Loya Jirga Showcases Participatory Democracy - 2002-06-12


Afghanistan's grand elective council went into its second session, the first at which delegates could take to the floor to speak. A great many of them took advantage of the opportunity.

The second session of the Loya Jirga, as the elective council is called, was a sometimes noisy, boisterous, and unseemly affair - in short, an exercise in participatory democracy.

The Loya Jirga was to have elected a council chairman and deputies, then move on to choosing the head of the next interim national government.

But the delegates would not be denied their chance to speak. It was as if the frustrations pent up by 30 years of war and civil unrest were suddenly released in a burst of free expression. By late afternoon, the agenda was in tatters.

One by one, delegates stepped up to the floor microphones to make a statement, ask a question, introduce someone or complain. Issues ranged from the serious to the frivolous.

One man, for example, complained that there were so many warlords at the assembly that he did not know if he was at a Loya Jirga or a military council. "But there were other light-hearted moments as well. This delegate complained that some of the invited guests were consuming too much food," said one of the delegates.

In the competition to he be heard, tempers also flared a few times by the microphones.

Observer Klaus-Peter Klaiber, the European Union's Special Representative to Afghanistan, says he was delighted to see the outpouring of expression. He said he was disturbed when, at one point late Tuesday, Loya Jirga interim chairman Ismail Qassimyar said key issues had been predetermined.

"I had the impression that maybe the major leaders had not read the Bonn agreement very closely at this particular moment," said Mr. Klaiber, referring to the document that outlines the procedures for Afghanistan's transition from Taleban rule. "And I felt also uneasy when I heard Mr. Qassimyar, at the end, try to close the session, saying the major issues are being decided. But you heard from the reactions from the floor immediately that this was not going to be accepted by 1,500 delegates who had no chance yet however to express their views. And I am very happy that this is happening now."

The 1,551 delegates are gathered under a cavernous air conditioned tent in Kabul to elect a new interim leader and cabinet, and decide on the structure of the transitional government. Under the terms of the Bonn Agreement, the interim government will rule Afghanistan for 18 months, write a new constitution and pave the way for elections.

The election of the leader is now not expected until Thursday.

The assembly is being held under extremely tight security. Earlier, a group of bodyguards of Ahmed Wali Masood were intercepted by international peacekeepers as they headed towards the Loya Jirga site.

Officials of the peacekeeping force, known as ISAF, say one of the gunmen cocked his weapon as if to fire it. The peacekeepers disarmed the four men, took them into custody and turned them over to local police.

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