Most of Afghanistan’s major political parties have put their differences on many issues aside and made a rare joint statement. In their ‘Democracy Charter’, they demand that the 2014 presidential elections are held on time and according to the constitution. They also call for a stronger role for political parties in making decisions about major issues of national importance as negotiations with the Taleban. Thomas Ruttig, a Senior Analyst at AAN, has been looking at the document and finds it also tells us how domestic politics are shaping up ahead of the political transition’, as the 2014 election loom on the horizon.
20 political organisations have established a ‘Cooperation Council of Political Parties and Coalitions of Afghanistan’ (reports in English here and in Dari here) and published a joint ‘Democracy Charter’ on 23 September (text in Dari here). Launching the new initiative, they told a press conference that all upcoming elections had to be held according to the constitution and political parties, as an ‘embodiment of democracy’, should have a stronger role in decision-making.
The signatories include most of the mujahedin parties (known as tanzim in Afghanistan, a word which reflects their military/political inheritance) or their offspring(1), the reformist Rights and Justice Party established last year (known as Hezb-e Haq wa Edalat in Dari), one former leftist party(2) and a number of others (the full list in Dari here)(3). None of the smaller new democratic parties who have been marginalised more and more over the past decade, after appearing from the underground after the overthrow of the Taleban regime, are part of it. A few of them were contacted by AAN and said they would not have signed up even if they had been asked to, because they do not want to appear together with ‘those of whom the public knows that they used money and weapons during [the last] election’.
Of the major tanzims from the 1980s, several are also missing. Those missing include the group President Karzai belonged to, the National Salvation Front led by former interim president Sebghatullah Mujaddedi (Karzai served in its ‘foreign affairs department’ and was appointed deputy foreign minister when Mujaddedi became president in the first post-communist mujahedin government in 1992), Sayyaf’s Dawat-e Islami, its breakaway group Hezb-e Eqtedar-e Islami (led by Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai), Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami (which largely dissolved into the Taleban movement in the 1990s, but was re-established and registered as a party after 2001 and is led by Musa Hotak) and the second largest Shia tanzim, Harakat-e Islami, now split into various factions.
The Cooperation Council’s demands would sound redundant in any democratic country, but reflect widespread concerns that President Hamed Karzai might manipulate the electoral framework – the election date, the relevant laws that are under review and the independent electoral institutions – in order to ensure a succession that serves the interest of his political camp. He has repeatedly denied such accusations.(4)
The list of signatories provides an insight into the current political parties scene in Afghanistan and where the diverse parties stand. First, it is interesting to note that the parties who have signed the document include those who belong to President Karzai’s de facto coalition that is currently in power and whose leaders occupy high-ranking government positions: Hezb-e Islami which has several ministers and many governors, Afghan Millat, Pir Gailani’s National Islamic Front but also the party of Second Vice President Karim Khalili, Hezb-e Wahdat and, with its special position, half in government (for example, First Vice President Muhammad Qasem Fahim and Defence Minister Bismillah Muhammadi), half in opposition (NCA and NFA, see footnote 1), Jamiat-e Islami. Their signatures signal that Karzai cannot be too sure that his coalition is guaranteed to survive to the 2014 elections, that some parties might go it alone (or with others) – and that loyalty will come at a price.
Particularly Hezb-e Islami – that had to struggle initially to get registered as a party at all because it took so long to distance itself from the insurgent wing of the party (led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and therefore known asHezb-e Islami Gulbuddin, or HIG, in the west; for more background, see the footnote to an earlier AAN blog), but has since become the most influential political party in the government, both on the national and the provincial level(5) – uses the charter to project itself as an independent political force. It is especially interesting that it has allied itself with its enemy of almost 40 years, Jamiat-e Islami. Jamiat is represented in the Cooperation Council by six different organisations, a good indication of the ambiguity involved in Afghanistan’s political party scene.(6)
Although the charter does not constitute the platform of an opposition alliance, it might be perceived so in the presidential camp. The President has already reacted nervously, moving to cancel a meeting scheduled by the US Ambassador with a number provincial governors, among them some known for their political ambitions: the governor of Balkh Muhammad Atta who would like to lead Jamiat, if not the country itself at some point, and his colleague in Nangrahar, Gul Agha Sherzoy who is from the same region as the Karzai family, from Kandahar, and was a presidential candidate in 2009 who was perceived to have US support – he was visited by some high-ranking US politicians during the electoral campaign even before they had met the President. In this context, the charter – even if very general in its content – could increase the President’s impression that everyone, including crucial allies, is after his job.
However, there is a major contradiction inherent in the document: most of the participating parties are not democratic themselves and have not seen any internal reform. Ordinary members are unable to participate in their parties’ internal decision-making processes, not even to elect leaders; in most, if not all, cases, leaders are elected from within the party’s leadership body, but not by a party congress. And where reform has been attempted, as in the case of Jombesh (read our paper on this here) or with the New Afghanistan Party that temporarily left Jamiat to put a new generation of leaders into the limelight but later returned to Jamiat’s ranks in 2005, it has stalled. Most of the parties in the Cooperation Council either still have the same leader as when they were founded (often in the 1980s) or, if the leader has subsequently died, his position has been inherited by a relative, as in Jamiat’s case. The Right and Justice Party and Dr Abdullah’s NCA have even traded jibes about how democratic, or not, the selection of their leaders was.
The more technical content of the charter also provides some insight into the parties’ thinking and possible tactics. For example, the parties commit themselves to full human, women’s and minority rights and freedom of expression, all without the often-used caveat ‘within the provisions of Islam’. (Maybe, this is a reason some more conservative parties – such as Mujaddedi’s and Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami – have not signed.) However, they do invoke the ‘Islamic, national and democratic values enshrined in the constitution’ – and the sequence here might serve as an indicator of what has priority.
The parties now join civil society – and in fact domestic and international election observers – in their demand for genuine electoral reform. ‘Based on the experience of past elections’ – pointing to the 2009 ballot – they demand ‘full impartiality’ of the electoral bodies, the Independent Election Commission and the Complaints Commission, which Karzai has been trying to ‘Afghanise’ – a move that has aroused the parties’ suspicion.(7)
Therefore, they demand that the election date is fixed, according to the provisions of the constitution. This would be to limit Karzai’s room to maneouvre to postpone like in 2004 and 2009. They also ask for all elections mentioned in the constitution to be held on time, in other words, the provincial council elections in 2014, the parliamentary elections in 2015 and district council and municipality council elections – which have never taken place since the ratification of the constitution in 2003. The parties demand domestic and international observation, another issue not favoured by the President.
The declaration also demands that no individuals in official positions or state organs interfere in the elections, very necessarily urge parliament to do its duty on electoral law reform and, last but not least, calls on the state to ‘start’ distributing electronic ID cards and hold a census so that elections can be based on a functioning voter registry. Given the time constraints – experts think this cannot be achieved by 2014 –, this demand is unrealistic. Ironically enough, this hole in the system will provide, yet again, ample opportunity for all sides to ballot-stuff. Finally, the charter also includes demands for the independence of parliament and the judiciary, the fight against corruption and for an ‘Afghan, inclusive and just peace process, based on the current political system/process (rawand).’
This charter looks like a commitment to fully democratic competition in the 2014 election. Free and fair elections would surely be welcome among the wider population. However, this is also about early pre-election power play. The parties still need to convince everybody they are serious about democracy. And it remains to be seen whether the council is sufficiently homogenous to take the announced joint action in case ‘any obstacle for the elections’ is created.
(1) Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan (led by Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, minister of economy); Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami Afghanistan (Abdul Karim Khalili), National Coalition of Afghanistan (Dr. Abdullah Abdullah), Mahaz-e Melli Islami Afghanistan (Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani), Nohzat-e Hambastagi-ye Melli (Sayed Eshaq Gailani), Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan (Salahuddin Rabbani, chairman of the High Peace Council), National Front of Afghanistan (Ahmad Zia Massud), Jombesh-e Melli Islami Afghanistan (Abdul Rashid Dostum), Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Mardom-e Afghanistan (Muhammad Mohaqqeq), Hezb-e Afghanistan-e Newin(Muhammad Yunos Qanuni), Hezb-e Eqtedar-e Melli Afghanistan (Sayed Ali Kazemi), Hezb-e Islami-ye Motahed-e Afghanistan (Wahidullah Sabawun),Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Millat-e Afghanistan (Qurban Ali Erfani, not registered), Nohzat-e Melli Afghanistan (Ahmad Wali Massud), Rawand-e Sabz (Amrullah Saleh). Currently, there are 49 political parties registered altogether.
(2) Hezb-e Mutahed-e Melli Afghanistan (Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi) who says the party no longer defines itself as leftist. It has been a member of the National Coalition’s (see under footnote 1) predecessor organisation, the Taghir wa Omid (Change and Hope) coalition.
(3) Afghan Millat (Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, minister of commerce and industries) and two smaller ones, Hezb-e Harakat-e Melli Afghanistan (Muhammad Naseri) and De Haqiqat Gund (Shah Wali Tarinzoi).
(4) But a statement by former US Ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, apparently an attempt to quell such concerns might have aggravated them: ‘Unless circumstances change dramatically I’m quite confident that President Karzai will not seek to amend the constitution’ (emphasis added).
(5) On 19 September, the Christian Science Monitor reported the clearest distancing of the registered Hezb wing from Hekmatyar’s part of the party (HIG): after a suicide bombing on vehicle with internationals on board carried out by a woman that claimed 12 lives in Kabul and for which HIG took responsibility, Hezb member and former MP, Abdul Jabar Shulgari, was quoted as saying: ‘After this attack there won’t be a big chance for Hezb-e Islami [sic – still using the same name] to negotiate with the Afghan government. This bombing now has shown the Afghan nation that Hezb-e Islami is not as moderate as they thought it was. This attack brings many questions to the mind of the people and raises many questions about the credibility of Hezb-e Islami.’
(6) They are: Jamiat itself (with acting head, the younger (Salahuddin) Rabbani), the National Coalition of Afghanistan, the National Front of Afghanistan, ex-NDS chief Amrullah Saleh’s Green Movement (Rawand-e Sabz) as well as Qanuni’s New Afghanistan Party and the Massud brothers’ National Movement. The latter two parties appear on the list although it was announced they were disbanded and re-merged with Jamiat in 2005.
(7) One day after the Charter was published, the lower house rejected that the Complaints Commission would have Afghan members only and voted for two internationals (nominated by the UN) to be included. It remains to be seen whether that has been the last word on this matter. The President accused the UN and the complaints commission which had several UN-appointed members, in 2009 of faking the previous election results when it cancelled a large number of his votes, preventing his straight victory in round one.
Photo: Hasht-e Sobh daily (Kabul), here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020