The Afghan president has more powers than a king

The Afghan president has more powers than a king
From Al Jazeera - January 3, 2018

The dismissal of Governor Atta Muhammad Nur of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan by President Ashraf Ghani on December 18, 2017, was met with adamant defiance by the governor and his supporters. It was an unnecessary, constitutionally induced, crisis that has brought the country to the brink of yet another major conflict.

This development is also a symptom of a much deeper constitutional problem, which, if not resolved, could be a recipe for disaster in the future.

The 2004 Afghan constitution invests the president with more powers than former Afghan kings had before the republican period. Among them is the power to appoint all government officials, political and professional, from the cabinet to the district levels.

At the same time the office of the president, at least in practice, tends to be filled only with ethnic Pashtuns. That is why candidates view the presidency as "the prize" to be won at any cost.

Hence, presidential elections have become a massive exercise in fraud. The last election conducted in 2014 was the worst by far. Following accusations of unprecedented violations, US Secretary of State John Kerry brokered, extra-constitutionally, a national unity government for Ashraf Ghani and Abdulla Abdulla to share power, averting a likely tragedy.

The exercise of presidential rights to appoint all government officials, in an ethnically divided and tribal society, is fraught with charges of monopolising power, bias and discrimination.

Because the retention of the "prize" necessitates reliance on kinsmen, tribesmen, and cronies, it promotes politicisation of ethnolinguistic and sectarian identities, heightening tensions and insecurity.

A long history of centralisation and ethnic tensions

Afghanistan inherited this trend towards centralisation from decades of political leaders trying to personalise power and exacerbating ethnic tensions.

The political culture of "kingship", predicated on centralisation of power in the hands of Pashtun monarchs who relied on their trusted kinsmen and tribesmen, dates back to the 1880s. Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901) secured the throne for himself with the help of British India, which provided him with substantial long-term subsidies of modern weapons and cash. His grandson, Shah Amanullah (1919-1929) enshrined centralism in the country's first constitution (1923).

In the 1930s, King Zahir Shah came to the throne and reigned with his uncles for three decades as an absolute monarch before adopting a new constitution in 1964. The new document prevented members of the royal family from holding high positions in the government. This bold attempt at constitutional monarchy was short-lived, as Zahir Shah was removed from the throne in a military coup in 1973, led by his cousin and brother-in-law, former Prime Minster Muhammad Daoud.

Daoud claimed unprecedented powers before his demise at the hands of Soviet-backed Afghan communist parties in April 1978. The communists attempted to set up centralised rule but were challenged by Western-backed anti-communist Mujahideen forces and the country plunged into civil war.

Despite the Mujahideen's military successes, they failed to form a functioning government as in-fighting erupted. These internecine conflicts further divided the country along ethnolinguistic and sectarian cleavages.

A new old constitution


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