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The Next Step in Afghan Democracy: Legislating

Times Staff Writer

Bloodstains still marred the basement walls last year when construction crews began renovating the building tapped to be this nation’s temporary parliament house.

A former government structure most recently used as a prison, the building in west Kabul has borne witness to decades of tyranny and ruthless civil war. Soon, it will inaugurate a new chapter in Afghanistan’s history when the country’s first elected parliament convenes its maiden session.

But as workers scramble to hammer the final nails in place and install chairs and microphones, the site stands as a concrete reminder that democracies aren’t built in a day. Beyond the physical trappings of the new parliament, officials are grappling with how to organize and run a body that their country has not seen before.

Who will sit where in the slightly cramped chamber? What rules will govern the conduct of a fair and orderly debate? Where will the government house the many representatives who come from outside the capital? How much will members be paid?

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In such rudimentary matters as these, Afghans have no history to guide them.

“We have no idea, no experience of what a parliament is,” said Haseeb Noori, the institution’s spokesman.

No one can even say with certainty when the opening session will take place. Different officials and organizers have cited different dates; President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman said last week that the legislature would convene in the third week of December, but Afghans are placing no bets on the decisions of a government that had promised to call parliament a week after election results were certified. That would have meant a grand kickoff this month -- not possible now given the preparations still to be made.

“Do you remember anything happening on time in Afghanistan?” said Taher Hashemi, a political analyst at the University of Kabul. “That’s why we say ‘inshallah’ when we say we’ll do something -- ‘God willing.’ ”

What’s clear is that September’s parliamentary election, widely deemed a success despite a lower-than-hoped-for turnout, was merely a first step in the formidable challenge of building a democracy from the ground up.

The task now is to establish the myriad rules, protocols and infrastructure that keep a parliament functioning and then, perhaps more difficult, to teach the 249 new lawmakers how the system works.

Among them will be numerous former warlords more accustomed to settling disputes with a gun on the battlefield than through polite discourse at wooden desks. Some of the members also are likely to be illiterate -- unsurprising in a nation where about two-thirds of the population cannot read or write, but a handicap in a job entailing reams of proposals, reports and other paperwork.

Organizers are trying to put together a training session, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, for representatives before parliament opens. But Ramazan Bashardost, a former government minister and one of the few intellectuals and professionals to be elected to the body, is skeptical.

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“I am sure we cannot educate a person in two weeks or two months to be a good representative,” Bashardost said. “The new generation arriving in this parliament -- they haven’t any real knowledge about parliament, about the procedures of parliament, about what the parliament’s job is.”

Because of the lack of training and general education, and because memories of war and conflict here remain fresh, analysts expect this inaugural parliament -- and possibly the next two or three -- to function as a forum for factional fighting and fiery rhetoric rather than a deliberative, technical, legislative assembly.

The various parties will take time to align themselves, and democratic values and culture will need time to take root. Experts emphasize that Afghanistan is still a society in transition, making this a fragile political experiment requiring strong outside support -- most notably from the United States -- and patience.

But though the new parliament may struggle with the process of drafting and enacting laws, Hashemi said, it still could flex its political muscle by blocking the agenda of Karzai’s administration. Among the chamber’s first duties will be deciding whether to ratify policies Karzai has put in place and to approve his Cabinet, which could inspire plenty of political jockeying.

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A few key figures elected to parliament have pledged allegiance to Karzai, but his opponents have won seats as well.

The extent of the new parliamentarians’ popular support is open to question. Observers point out that the relatively low voter turnout of 53%, coupled with rules allowing Afghans to cast their ballots for just one candidate from a slate of hundreds, meant that winners were elected with just a fraction of the overall tally. In Kabul, with 1.2 million registered voters, the top finisher was former warlord Mohammed Mohaqiq, who got 52,586 votes. Another successful candidate toward the bottom of the list will enter parliament on the strength of about 2,000 votes.

“We are confident of the integrity of the results and that the results are an accurate reflection of the will of the electorate,” said Richard Atwood, chief of operations for the U.N.-Afghan body overseeing elections. “We urge candidates, and in particular losing candidates, to accept the results and move on with the process.”

The west Kabul building where the winners will convene once served as the headquarters of the rubber-stamp council set up under Mohammad Zaher Shah, the king who was overthrown in 1973. It sits along a sandy stretch of road where vendors sell impossibly large pumpkins and a few shepherds corral their flocks, on the edge of a gracious residential neighborhood wrecked by bullets and rockets.

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Officials decided last year to return the structure to its former use as a government assembly hall, a $3-million project to rescue the site from its more macabre recent past as a prison.

“When we entered the building, it seemed as though there were ghosts inside,” said Said Sharif Hossainy, deputy minister for urban development and housing. “It was strange.”

Walls have been ripped out to widen spaces, especially for the semi-circular parliament chamber with tiered seating. A media gallery has been added. But don’t look for such features as an electronic voting board, phones and Internet access at each desk, or even individual offices and staffs for the representatives.

“Afghanistan has a lot of economic problems, so we didn’t spend a lot of money on this,” said Ghulam Hassan Gran, general director of parliamentary affairs for the Secretariat of the National Assembly.

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Dignitaries have erected an official marker down the street at the site designated as the parliament’s eventual permanent home, hard against a Canadian military encampment.

Funded by $25 million from the Indian government, officials say the new parliament building will be ready in three years -- inshallah.


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