Afghanistan's president Ashraf Ghani. Photo: Patrick Tsui/FCO

Government and politics

The constitution adopted in January 2004 states that Afghanistan is an Islamic republic and that no law may be contrary to Islamic values. The law is based on secular principles, not on Sharia (Islamic law).

The President, who is chosen by the electorate for a maximum of two terms of five years each, is the head of state and commander-in-chief and leads government operations. With the approval of the Parliament, the President appoints ministers, the Attorney General, the Director of the Central Bank and the members of the Supreme Court. The President also has the power to declare war, impose a state of emergency and call referendums. The President may be dismissed by the Loya Jirga (Grand Council, see below), if two-thirds of MPs decide to convene such a meeting. The Parliament consists of two chambers, the lower house Wolesi Jirga (People's House) and the House of Lords -  Meshrano Jirga (Old House). Members of the Wolesi Jirga are elected in general elections for a five-year period and number more than 250. Two-thirds of the members of the Jirga Meshrano are appointed by the 34 provincial councils and one third by the President. One third of the elected seats in parliament and provincial assemblies are reserved for women. The Afghan people's most important forum which is superior to Parliament is the Loya Jirga (Grand Council). This consists of MPs and the Chairs of provincial and district assemblies. Among its tasks is to decide on matters related to the country's basic security and independence, to amend the constitution and to impeach the President. The Constitution stipulates that full equality will exist between women and men and women will be guaranteed the right to education.

Presidential elections took place in October 2004 and Hamid Karzai was elected. In 2009, Karzai was re-elected for another term.

The last presidential election in 2014 had to be carried out in two rounds. Abdullah Abdullah, who received most votes in the first round in April, did not manage to secure 50%. A second round of voting was carried out in June between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, who finished second in the first round.

The two candidates accused each other of widespread electoral fraud which resulted in no presidential appointment until protracted negotiations had been undertaken and international pressure applied. The agreement finally reached resulted in Ashraf Ghani being appointed President of Afghanistan, while Abdullah Abdullah received a position corresponding to Prime Minister. Disagreements between the two candidates, who were now to rule together, persisted and resulted in ministerial post appointments taking more than six months. This laborious parliamentary process and a general deterioration of the economy and the security situation has led to significantly reduced confidence among the population.

Afghanistan adopted its first democratic Constitution in 1964 and held relatively democratic elections in 1965 and 1969. The monarchy was abolished in 1973 in connection with a military coup. The Republic was confirmed by a new Constitution in 1977. After the Communist takeover in 1978, Afghanistan was ruled as a people's democratic republic of the Soviet in which all parties except the Communist PDPA were prohibited. In 1987 a new Constitution reinstated the multi-party system, however subordinate to the Communist-controlled National Front (NF). A constitutional amendment in 1990 abolished this monopoly of power, played down socialism and emphasised the country’s Islamic heritage.

After the Islamic guerrilla takeover in 1992, Afghanistan was ruled by a Provisional Council. A new Constitution was adopted in 1993, but was never applied in practice as disagreements within the Council led to continued civil war. Yet another new, provisional Constitution was adopted in 1996, but this was also never applied due the Taliban takeover of that year.

During Taliban rule, Sharia (Islamic law) and the Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad's words and example, replaced a formal Constitution. The government in Kabul exerted limited influence. One exception was the Ministry for the promotion of virtue and suppression of lust whose police enforced its edicts on dress and behaviour. The most important decisions were taken by a traditional council, shura, in Qandahar led by the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, a Pashtun from Southwestern Afghanistan, who claimed to be born in the early 1960s and participated in the struggle against the Soviet-backed regime. The Taliban changed its name in 1997 to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Mohammad Omar was given the title of Amir al-Muminin, Commander of the Faithful.