Kabul, Jan. 1 (Reuters): Up to a quarter of the 502 delegates thrashing out a new Afghan constitution refused to vote today, as ethnic divisions threatened to undermine a draft charter backed by the US.
After lengthy delays, men and women from across the country lined up to begin voting inside a giant tent on a Kabul college campus on proposed amendments to the 160-article draft document, including one giving women more seats in parliament.
The draft outlines a strong presidential system with a limited role for parliament. It would make Islam the official religion but without the Islamic sharia law enforced by the hardline Taliban regime toppled from power two years ago.
Interim leader Hamid Karzai has endorsed the draft, as have supporters in Washington who want to see him run for President in elections in June. Karzai argues that a strong presidency is needed to rebuild the country after two decades of civil strife.
But his opponents at the constitutional Loya Jirga, or Grand Assembly, have criticised the process, saying it threatens to create an autocratic political system that sidelines minority groups such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.
Karzai is from the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, and the constitution could return the group to its traditional position at the centre of power.
Afghanistans ethnic faultlines have been dangerously exposed by the assembly, Western diplomats warned.
I am...concerned that there is an ethnic polarisation that was unnecessary that could be, if allowed to continue, very damaging, said the EUs envoy to Afghanistan Francesc Vendrell. He added he hoped it was a temporary explosion.
Opposition to Karzai has been led by former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum and Islamic conservative Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf.
All are linked to the Northern Alliance, a faction of mainly Tajiks that helped the US topple the Taliban in 2001. None of the three leaders was seen casting a ballot today.
Delegates voted on amendments governing presidential powers, whether minority languages would be given national status and if more seats in parliament should be reserved for women and nomads. They were also deciding whether to give provincial assemblies, not the president, power to propose candidates for governor.
Results of the vote were not made public as expected by the end of the day today, and no explanation was given.