How Did the Afghan Loya Jirga Elect the Country’s New President?

A council of Afghan tribal representatives—called a loya jirga—elected Hamid Karzai as the nation’s president Thursday. What formal procedures does a loya jirga use to elect leaders?

Historically, very few. The last time a loya jirga met was in 1977, 19years before the start of Taliban rule. In those days, the council decided questions such as the structure of the national government and major foreign policies by informal consensus—reached through heated discussion, shouted votes, or applause. A list of some of the more important loya jirgas in Afghan history can be found here.


This week, at the urging of the United States and other nations, Afghan officials decided to install more formal procedures. They determined that the country’s new president would be elected by a majority secret-ballot vote of the 1,551 attending delegates. Karzai collected 1,295 votes, besting two other rivals. He will lead the new interim government for 18 months, when popular elections will be held.

Even Karzai himself seemed uncertain of the rule change. When he was greeted by deafening applause on the first day of the loya jirga, he mistook the clapping for a vote. He thought he’d just been elected head of state.

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Explainer thanks Larry Goodson of BentleyCollege, Barnett Rubin of New York University, and Charles Dunbar of SimmonsCollege.