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Stateside with Rosalea: An Important Choice

Stateside with Rosalea

An Important Choice

The real story this week isn't the adoption by the US military of a meme from a fantasy movie - spider hole, indeed! - but the adoption by Afghanistan of a constitution. Will that country's governing body be the sort that has a separately elected President, or will it use a parliamentary model like that in the UK?

For what my two cents is worth, I have the general, perhaps erroneous, impression that political structures with a separately elected leader are the most open to abuses conducted by that leader and the persons he or she surrounds themselves with in a separately appointed executive.

Not that it isn't possible for a Prime Minister to do unpopular things with only partial backing of his or her parliamentary colleagues and the Cabinet - you only have to look at Tony Blair and the British government's decision to support the invasion of Iraq. But such a leadership horse is in the traces along with a number of other horses and therefore has to temper its behaviour.

On the other hand, a President too often considers him or herself to be a fine thoroughbred pulling a crystal carriage that only non-critical supporters may enjoy a ride in for as long as they remain uncritical. The possibility for dispensing favours, both internally and abroad, that are in the interest of such a leader and not in the interest of the people who elected them also seems that much greater.

I've been trying to guess which way Afghanistan will go. To me, the Westminster parliamentary model combined with some form of proportional representation based on numbers of voters, not ethnic divisions, seems preferable. To be sure there will be parties that appeal to particular ethnic groups more than others, and maybe it's just a Pollyanna wish on my part that some kind of pan-Afghanistan party will arise that puts aside ethnic differences and gains wide support.

Perhaps there are two factors that minimise the likelihood of that happening. One is the strong presence of US and German news television and advisors in Afghanistan - both those countries have separately elected presidents. Well, perhaps BBC World is also strong there, along with British advisors. But ultimately the political system that fits best with the Afghani view of the world is the one that will triumph.

I don't know if their world view derives from that originating in Mesopotamia millennia ago, but I recently came across this quote in a book called "Man's Quest for Political Knowledge", by William Anderson, and it seems as appropriate to think about today as it was when it was written 40 years ago.

He is writing about the town assemblies that were the original form of governing in Mesopotamia: "... when facing a serious military, food, or water crisis, [they] turned to one of the more respected, wiser, but still vigorous elders, or to a younger man with an excellent military record, and gave him the powers of a dictator for the time being. If the dictator so appointed failed to meet his responsibilities, a different leader might be tried, or the city might lose its war with another city and become subject to its ruler. If the dictator succeeded, however, he would be well entrenched in power..."

Anderson then goes on to explain that from being a temporary dictator the ruler would become a king, and that "people might reasonably assume that the son of the king, already associated with him in his duties, should be his successor. Primitive men elsewhere have reasoned thus concerning the sons of chiefs, while the chiefs themselves have not been slow to train their sons for rulership in order to enhance their chances of establishing a family dynasty."

That above all is why I think it's preferable to have a mediating body between the people and their choice of a leader - and that mediating body is the political party of the type that makes a Westminster-style parliament possible. Not the fund-raising mechanism that passes for a political party in the United States. Parties here in the US have platforms as wide as the Mississippi Delta and with as many strands to them as needed in order to sucker voters into getting their candidate elected no matter what.

That's not a whinge - it's an accepted fact as evidenced by this quote from a scholarly paper written 20 years ago by Phillip M Williams: "When US writers and British readers consider the power of the parties and the distribution of power within them, they have quite different considerations in their minds because they conceptualise parties quite differently. To Britons the essential feature of a political party is understood (not always rightly) to be the common outlook binding its members together and translating, however imperfectly, that outlook into political practice through the control of government.

"To Americans historically, parties have rarely had even the most rudimentary common outlook, or any recognised membership, or even a government over which they could reasonably hope to exercise real control." Unless the party held the Presidency, Williams said, there was no established leadership of the form you got in Britain, and even if the party did hold the Presidency, its leadership "was temporary, contigent, and contested at every turn by numerous independent baronies that were the only permanent power centres in the system."

Will Afghanistan choose a system of baronies and kings (paradoxically the US model) or will it opt for a representative government?


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