The Constitutional Period, 1964-73

The Constitutional Period, 1964-73

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

After public review the constitution was put into effect in October, 1964. ALoya Jirgah (grand council of notables) had debated, modified and approved itsinnovations, which included a bill or rights for all Afghans, explicitlyincluding women. A new parliament was created, dominated by its lower house (theWolesi Jirgah), which was to be elected through universal suffrage. It had thepower to reject royal appointments to the cabinet and to dismiss it by a vote ofno confidence. Laws passed by parliament were to have constitutional precedenceover traditional Islamic law (the Sharia). Parliament was to meetregularly, not at royal pleasure as before. It could refuse budget increases,but could not reduce appropriations below the level of the previous year. Itsmembers had control over the organization of parliament and enjoyed legalimmunity for what they said in debate. Members had the right to form politicalparties, but their formation required legislation acceptable to the cabinet and,hence, the king.

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

Judicial restructuring and elective provincial councils were endorsed, butthe constitution did not prescribe their structure or working arrangements. Thefailure to spell out a complete structure for the government leant a provisionalcharacter to the constitution. At least seventy articles required parliamentarylegislation in order for them to take effect.

The constitution's democratic features were especially provisional. Ampleauthority was retained for the executive branch to slow, halt or reverselegislation. Nor was caution only displayed toward would-be overweeninglegislators. The most notorious provision in the constitution was itsprohibition of official or political activity by any member of the royal familyother than the monarch. The implications of this clause would soon haunt theconstitutionalists. No means was provided for an increasingly restless MuhammadDaud to return to power without nullifying the constitution.

Shortly after its enactment, the vulnerability of the constitution topolitical realities became dramatically clear. The adversary relationship itcreated between the cabinet and the parliament brought about tragedy and anserious loss of political momentum. In October 1965, following the election ofthe new legislature, an impasse over its approval of the new cabinet broughtabout rioting and intervention by the army leading to the death of at leastthree student demonstrators. All sides were appalled except the leftistagitators who were led by Marxist legislators. The proposed cabinet waswithdrawn, a reshuffled one under the leadership of Muhammad Hashim Maiwandwal,a senior diplomat, was approved with little opposition. Officials andlegislators were faced with running the new system with hopes considerablydampened.

The liberal or constitutional experiment, which lasted for the next eightyears, has been generally seen as a political failure. The cabinet andlegislature were constantly deadlocked, unable to enact laws vital to theconstitution or seriously weakening it through long delays. Legislators provedto be effective critics of the bureaucracy, which responded by holding backlegislation to avoid scrutiny or lengthy disputes.

There was a wide social and cultural gap between the legislators and seniorministry officials. Few of the former had had the exposure to the moderneducation and foreign experience enjoyed by senior ministry officials. More than90 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 officialswho had less authority and information. The constitution discouragedexecutive-legislative cooperation on policy, but it did not prevent the give andtake of patronage.

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