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The Next Step in Afghan Democracy: Legislating

The building is nearly ready, but lawmakers still must figure out the parliamentary system.

November 13, 2005|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — 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?

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.

"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.

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

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