The Afghan government has started another attempt to make life difficult for the country’s political parties. One year after a disputed re-registration of all parties ended, it threatens them now with suspension because, it says, none of them have a sufficient presence in the required minimum number of provinces as stipulated in a by-law to the political parties law. While this may well be the case – no wonder, given the poor security situation in many places, the pressure by non-pluralistically minded sub-national rulers and a financial crisis faced by many parties. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig concludes that, with less than one year to go before the presidential elections, this threatened suspension amounts to curbing, instead of expanding, democratic participation (with reporting by Gran Hewad, Obaid Ali, Ehsan Qane, Borhan Osman and Fabrizio Foschini).
None of the 55 currently registered political parties in Afghanistan (see their list here)(1) fulfils all necessary requirements for being legally active. That at least was the position of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) last Wednesday, 10 April, when a private Afghan TV station published a statement by the ministry, along with commentary by senators, threatening to suspend the activities of all political parties unless they urgently take corrective action about their shortcomings.
Nasir Hafezi, the head of the Coordination Centre for the Registration of Political Parties and Social Organisations at the MoJ, when contacted by AAN on 15 April, referred to the Regulation on establishment and registration of political parties, a by-law (moqarara) to the currently valid Political Parties Law (following information added on 17 April) passed by the cabinet in June 2010 and amended in March 2012, so that every party should have a presence in ‘not less than 20’ provinces within one year of its registration. (The by-law goes beyond what the actual law says.) The ministry considers this deadline over now. When Ariana TV broke the news (apparently also to most parties), it reported that the MoJ considers all the parties to be ‘informal’ now (source: BBC Monitoring,12 April 2013 and Ariana News, 11 April 2013; both texts differ slightly).(2)
Hafezi claimed that the notification had been sent out more than two weeks earlier, on 7 Hamal (27 March), to the parties and had additionally been broadcast over state radio and TV in two nights. ‘At the beginning, the clause was [meant to be] more strict, requiring the existence of the offices at the very day of the registration of the parties,’ he told AAN. ‘However, we amended it to give a bit more time to the parties [i.e., one year] so that they could establish them.’ He added that the government’s aim was ‘to make the parties nationwide rather than to keep them in tribes, provinces or families. … We do not ask them to have high buildings; an apartment is enough to be an office.’ According to him, no party has a presence in more than 12 provinces so far.(3) If they do not submit full documents ‘in the near future’ (he did not give a specific deadline), ‘we are going to remove these parties from our registration database’. (On 16 April, all 55 were still there.) This would not amount to a complete dissolution, however, because ‘this is not our authority,’ he added. This is only possible by the Supreme Court which can act on the MoJ’s request. According to the same Ariana TVreport, the chairman of the Senate’s Complaints Commission, Zalmay Zabuli, even directly threatened the parties with legal consequences if they do not meet the requirements by the MoJ’s deadline.
The 10 April report triggered criticism, some angry reactions and a stir of activity among the parties. Abbas Noyan, a former Kabul MP and member of the Rights and Justice Party’s leadership, admitted on Ariana TV that the parties do not meet all requirements, but pointed out that political parties in Afghanistan should not be compared ‘with political parties in advanced countries’. Asef Baktash, the leader of the left-leaning Hezb-e Taraqi-ye Watan (Homeland Progress Party), claims it has offices in all 34 provinces, but that it did ‘not put our banner on the top of the gate because of insecurity’; he further said that the party does not fear the Taleban so much but rather does not advertise itself out of fear of ‘local warlords’. He criticised that ‘while government officials live in heavily guarded houses because there is no security, [the MoJ] is asking us to open offices in 20 provinces’. He also said that he calculated that running even minimally established offices would amount to USD 120,000 in annual costs for each party. ‘Who is going to pay these costs?’ he asked, pointing to the economic situation of the country where the average annual income is USD 528 and ‘one of the world’s lowest’, according to the World Bank’s latest ‘Afghanistan Economic Update’ (October 2012). Muhammad Zarif Naseri, the leader of Afghan Tribes’ National Solidarity Party, said the MoJ’s announcement ‘was a plot of the warlords and those rich MPs who have gained immense sums of money in the last ten years to exclude their poor rival parties’. (Naseri’s party registered in 2003 but has not yet re-registered after 2010; more about re-registration of parties below.)
New political parties that were enthusiastic to use the post-Taleban freedom have been increasingly sidelined. Some are emerging from years of underground existence, while others are individual ‘vanity projects’. But most have little experience in working legally after three decades of conflict, and struggle with organisational weaknesses and dwindling financial resources; parties are banned by law from receiving external funding. Many were forced to close down provincial offices – if they ever had them.(4) Traditionally, most parties – even the bigger ones – operate from private homes. Currently, only Kabul and Herat feature official party offices beyond those of the battle-hardened tanzim, the former mujahedin parties. According to a civil society activist in Mazar-e Sharif, usually considered relatively safe, the media are so tightly controlled that it is ‘an obstacle both for civil society and for the [non-Jehadi] political parties to make their voices heard’.
Most parties, registered or not, are planning to join hands in protest. According to Baktash, some ‘45 to 50 parties’ have been gathering since Sunday (14 April) ‘to discuss a stand against the statements of the MoJ and the Senate’s Complaints Commission’ that has supported the MoJ’s approach. If the protests happen, then for the first time since almost all of the country’s political parties jointly protested in January 2005,(5) parties will be united across the political spectrum and beyond the Cooperation Council of Political Parties and Coalitions of Afghanistan (CCPPCA). This body formed in September last year and now combines 21 opposition and pro-government groups on electoral reform. However, many of the smaller pro-democratic parties say they do not want to cooperate with the tanzim in this council.
This is not the first time the government has put the political parties under pressure immediately before elections. In June 2010, four months before the previous parliamentary elections, the MoJ forced all parties to re-register after Parliament amended the 2003 Political Parties Law by introducing higher hurdles for registration (our analysis here, here and here); these amendments backfire on the parties now. At that time, in 2010, many parties called the government’s move a deliberate campaign to keep their activists busy with bureaucratic nitty-gritty in a time they were supposed to work on the election campaign.(6) Party leaders that AAN spoke to then described how infrastructural problems – like the lack of copy shops or regular electricity, or unreliable mail connections which forced them to travel extensively to collect members’ forms – hampered their work in a politically crucial time. Security issues were also cited: many party members were reluctant to give their full personal data, as required by the law, and party officials took risks to carry stacks of forms through insecure territory.(7) Again, before the first, eagerly awaited election cycle in 2004/2005, the law on the basis of which political parties would be registered for the first time in Afghanistan’s history(8) was held back for over a year by the cabinet, shortening the parties’ preparation time for the presidential poll to seven months.(9) Many parties had been waiting in the starting blocks – consciously not kicking off activities before they were legally allowed – to make a point that the unruly civil-war times were over. A year later, in the 2005 parliamentary elections, they were treated even worse: in contradiction to the Political Parties Law which stipulates in Article 3 that ‘the political system of the State of Afghanistan is based on the principles of democracy and plurality of political parties’, the election law prevented the parties altogether from fielding political party lists.
While formally legal, the latest MoJ step seems to reflect the government’s uneasiness about the political parties’ latest upsurge of activity. Particularly, the CCPPCA – which combines opposition and usually pro-government parties (listed in footnote 1 here) and embodies the highest degree of united action since political parties were legalised almost ten years ago – is a thorn in the government’s side with its constant criticism of the President’s election-related decisions: getting rid of the UN-appointed members in the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), then removing the ECC altogether, pushing through the use of the old and easy-to-forge voter cards and attempting to install a chairman of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) that would be more of his liking than the current one (the related law is still pending in parliament; more about this here). The government is also uneasy about an earlier IEC proposal to switch to a mixed systemin which one third of the 249 Wolesi Jirga seats would be reserved for political parties in the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2015. Although the MoJ presents itself as lenient, claiming that it gave the parties one year to fulfil all legal requirements, its latest action reflects just the opposite: it tackles the parties in a time again when at least some of them are thinking about fielding their own candidate in next April’s presidential election and, by its failure to alert them after they had submitted their re-registration papers, it gave them a false sense of security.
It is not surprising that the MoJ received support from Parliament, and particularly from a number of the senators. In contrast to the members of the Lower House, the Senate members are not directly elected. The Lower House, which had passed the latest version of the Political Parties Law in 2010 requiring the parties’ re-registration, has been elected under a party-less system. It is very unlikely that the senators and MPs will support a change in law that abolishes, at least partly, the very basis on which they had been elected.
If the government gets its will and the expected protest by the political parties is unsuccessful, the MoJ will have the last say about which parties will contest both upcoming elections. (The IEC must ask the MoJ for the credentials of parties that want to field candidates.) As a result, the parliamentary poll to be held in 2015 might again be one without parties. For next year’s presidential election, the consequences would be lighter, apart from the fact that parties would be busy again with paperwork. But although candidates could run as ‘independents’ (as a number of known members of parties did in 2004 and 2009), openly representing a party is a right granted by the Political Parties Law.
Elsewhere, selecting between parties would be left to elections themselves, by the decision of voters. Most transitional countries start with many political parties that gradually decrease in number over the first election cycles while the emerging party system stabilise. Afghanistan’s government seems to prefer a bureaucratic over a democratic approach for dealing with this situation. Furthermore, the already uneven playing field might become even more lopsided: The tanzim that have a lot of power, both on the central and the local levels, and access to independent resources will not easily will be intimidated by bureaucratic action. The weaker pro-democratic groups that complied with disarmament, or were never armed in the first place, will be further marginalised.
(1) The list numbers 56, but one party (that recently changed its name) appears twice and the old registration has not been deleted.
(2) (Amendment, 17 April, in italics) The original moqarara was published on 15 June 2010, and the council of ministers (cabinet) amended it on 19 March 2012; it was published in the Official Gazzette on 3 April that year.The ministry’s newly updated website states that political parties and social organisations have ‘rarely observed’ the ‘obligations prescribed [to them] by law’ after their registration, namely ‘that they will officially inform this office concerning their activities and plans’.
(3) Three parties (Afghan Mellat, Vice President Khalili’s Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami and Jamiat) challenged this notion. On the other hand, the Senate’s website quoted Senator Zabuli as saying, referring to ‘information from the MoJ’, that 16 parties had told the MoJ that they have offices in 15 provinces but an MoJ evaluation found that 15 of them only have an office in Kabul. (The website does not give the full list and only mentions six smaller parties, here.)
(4) Around the 2005 parliamentary elections, dozens of parties were still operating in each of the eight regional centres, at least. For those who lacked resources, the National Democratic Institute had established Political Party Resource Centres in the eight regions.
(5) In January 2005, 34 parties (all but one) participated in an election-related consultation meeting organised by the government. They spoke in favour of a proportional election system for parliament, in a last-ditch effort to prevent the use of the Single Non-Transferable Vote system. Their anger grew when they were invited for another consultation about the electoral system by UNAMA later in the same year, only to find out that the decision had already been taken. (For more detail, see my paper about the history of Afghanistan’s political parties, pp 41ff, here.)
(6) As a result, only five of Afghanistan’s then 110 registered political parties have finally had the chance to field candidates under their name and logo in the 2010 elections.
(7) Even when travelling on major highways, ordinary Afghans avoid carrying any documents that link them to the government or activity in the current political set-up.
(8) Political party registration was also made possible in 1987 under President Najibullah. Only a few parties, however, made use of this exercise of ‘controlled pluralism’ (more in my paper, pp 13–14, here).
(9) The law was approved by the President in October 2003.
Photo: Vote counting after the 2005 parliamentary election in Sharana, Paktika (Thomas Ruttig)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020