The Constitutional Period, 1964-73

Afghanistan Table of Contents

Zahir Shah replaced his cousin in 1963 with a cabinet of commoners who had earned doctorates abroad. He appointed a committee of other foreign educated Afghans to draft a new constitution. Its primary goals were to prepare the government and the people for gradual movement toward democracy and socio-economic modernization. The central concern of government was to shift from controlling the population to preparing it for new opportunities.

After public review the constitution was put into effect in October, 1964. A Loya Jirgah (grand council of notables) had debated, modified and approved its innovations, which included a bill or rights for all Afghans, explicitly including women. A new parliament was created, dominated by its lower house (the Wolesi Jirgah), which was to be elected through universal suffrage. It had the power to reject royal appointments to the cabinet and to dismiss it by a vote of no confidence. Laws passed by parliament were to have constitutional precedence over traditional Islamic law (the Sharia). Parliament was to meet regularly, not at royal pleasure as before. It could refuse budget increases, but could not reduce appropriations below the level of the previous year. Its members had control over the organization of parliament and enjoyed legal immunity for what they said in debate. Members had the right to form political parties, but their formation required legislation acceptable to the cabinet and, hence, the king.

Bold as its innovations were compared with the functional autocracy it replaced, the constitution was filled with provisions intended to assure that the royal government would not lose control. A wide constitutional gulf separated the cabinet from the parliament. The cabinet was to exercise the monarch's powers, including the initiation of all government policy and the invocation of emergency decrees. Cooperation between officials and legislators, integral to classical parliamentary systems, was discouraged. Legislators were prohibited from holding ministerial or other executive positions. The cabinet was assured control over the composition of the Meshrano Jirgah, the parliament's upper house.

Judicial restructuring and elective provincial councils were endorsed, but the constitution did not prescribe their structure or working arrangements. The failure to spell out a complete structure for the government leant a provisional character to the constitution. At least seventy articles required parliamentary legislation in order for them to take effect.

The constitution's democratic features were especially provisional. Ample authority was retained for the executive branch to slow, halt or reverse legislation. Nor was caution only displayed toward would-be overweening legislators. The most notorious provision in the constitution was its prohibition of official or political activity by any member of the royal family other than the monarch. The implications of this clause would soon haunt the constitutionalists. No means was provided for an increasingly restless Muhammad Daud to return to power without nullifying the constitution.

Shortly after its enactment, the vulnerability of the constitution to political realities became dramatically clear. The adversary relationship it created between the cabinet and the parliament brought about tragedy and an serious loss of political momentum. In October 1965, following the election of the new legislature, an impasse over its approval of the new cabinet brought about rioting and intervention by the army leading to the death of at least three student demonstrators. All sides were appalled except the leftist agitators who were led by Marxist legislators. The proposed cabinet was withdrawn, a reshuffled one under the leadership of Muhammad Hashim Maiwandwal, a senior diplomat, was approved with little opposition. Officials and legislators were faced with running the new system with hopes considerably dampened.

The liberal or constitutional experiment, which lasted for the next eight years, has been generally seen as a political failure. The cabinet and legislature were constantly deadlocked, unable to enact laws vital to the constitution or seriously weakening it through long delays. Legislators proved to be effective critics of the bureaucracy, which responded by holding back legislation to avoid scrutiny or lengthy disputes.

There was a wide social and cultural gap between the legislators and senior ministry officials. Few of the former had had the exposure to the modern education and foreign experience enjoyed by senior ministry officials. More than 90 percent of the Wolesi Jirgah members represented rural constituencies. Legislators had the right to lobby ministers and senior bureaucrats directly. Doing so was more rewarding than dealing with middle rank provincial officials who had less authority and information. The constitution discouraged executive-legislative cooperation on policy, but it did not prevent the give and take of patronage.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress