Political Landscape

Right and Justice Party launched, as ‘reformist opposition’


This is the most serious addition to Afghanistan’s political party scene since years: After 14 months of preparations and a two-day conference of its 420 founders on Tuesday and Wednesday, Hezb-e Haq wa Edalat (Right and Justice Party) officially ‘declared its existence’, as you do such things in Afghanistan, today, 3 November, in Kabul. With some big names floating around as main protagonists – particularly of former interior minister Hanif Atmar and AIHCR chairwoman Sima Samar – the interest of the media was big. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig also attended.

Political observers have been aware since a long time that this new political organisation was in the making. But hitherto, Haq wa Edalat had been called an ‘association’, an ijtema, only – its organisers being aware of the widespread mistrust against parties in Afghan society and, last but not least, President Karzai’s distaste for them. But, as Abbas Noyan, a well-known Kabuli intellectual, former MP and one of the four temporary spokesmen (indeed, no women) of the party told AAN: ‘The term “party” isn’t the problem, the actions some people took in the name of some party are the problem’. The decision to go the full way and make it a party, though, was just taken the day before, and despite remaining doubts among some of its founding members.
Haq wa Edalat has also been called an ‘Atmar’ party in the run-up to today,. But the former minister who had parted ways with the President after a reportedly heated argument last October, remained more in the background this morning, sitting in the second row, not speaking – not yet, maybe. Most of the cameras were on him anyway. This is a wise decision, and a spokesman insisted that ‘this is not one man’s party, and not the party of a particular person’. We will see when it, as announced, holds its first full congress after six months. (In the meantime, it will be lead by a 53-members temporary shura-ye markazi, i.e. central council.) Sima Samar, because of her president-appointed position, did not attend. A young media official of the party described her as an ‘advisor’ to it.

Haq wa Edalat claims its place as a reformist and opposition party, a ‘sound and constructive’ one, as Noyan described it at the press conference. How much of an opposition remains to be seen, and it is already debated amongst its founders. Mu’in Mrastyal, for example, also a former MP, said he was ‘not satisfied’ with what some of the four temporary spokesmen said when answering the journalists’ questions about it. He doesn’t see the party as ‘strictly opposition’, it rather should support the government where it does good work and criticise its mistakes.

How much opposition it will be, will also decide about the new party’s fate, whether it really can mobilise people countrywide and beyond real and perceived ethnic lines which are still so dominant. And it will decide whether it will be able to challenge the wide-ranging perception, at least of most Western observers here, that Dr Abdullah’s Change and Hope (Taghir wa Omid) coalition is the only existing opposition in the country. Therefore, Haq wa Edalat sees Dr Abdullah’s coalition as the one political group from which it wants to clearly distinguish itself. When Haq wa Edalat says that it is open to cooperation with all parties that ‘do not want to change the political system’, this, in effect, excludes Taghir wa Omid which favours a parliamentarian system, with a prime minister’s position, and, at least some of its components, a federalist system. (If such changes were decided by a Constitutional Loya Jirga, this would be acceptable, of course, Noyan said.) Besides, tongue-in-cheek, he also pointed out that ‘our leaders are elected and we have a collective advisory (mashwarati) leadership’ – a stark contrast to Dr Abdullah’s role as the only, undisputed and unelected front person.

It is encouraging that the new party’s members and spokesmen come from all ethnic groups of the country. The four spokesman, besides Noyan (a Hazara), are former economy minister Hamidullah Faruqi (Pashtun), Assadullah Walwalji (Uzbek), an intellectual from the north, well-known for his almost stubborn opposition to Dostum, and Shujauddin Khorassani (Tajik), a university professor of economics. I also saw a Pashai and a Baluch, former MP Sarmachar.

The spokesmen insisted that the party’s programme (the latest version which has not been published yet, due to changes made during the founders’ meeting) differs from those of the other parties. This might be a somewhat courageous claim since most other parties also talk about ‘peace, stability and progress’, ‘social justice’, ‘the rule of law’, ‘national unity’, accountability and an anti-corruption agenda, political participation of all citizens, a free market economy and attack the government as ‘not capable and weak’. But in Afghan politics, it is less about what words are used than about the credibility of the politicians who use them. So, Haq wa Edalat should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Atmar told AAN that, in Europa, this would be a ‘social democratic’ party. Noyan nuanced this a bit by saying that ‘we need to look at the Afghan situation, take the structure of our society into consideration. We are not copying from anyone’. He added that the party is strongly in favour of electoral reform and against the current ‘backward’ election system of SNTV that ‘we want to change; […] the role of political parties must be recognised’. Khorassani said that ‘we need Islam as our religion’, implicating that he doesn’t want it as an ideology.

He and his colleagues already had to face tough questions of the journalists on the issues of the day. The party proclaimed itself as in favour of talks with the insurgents, but transparent ones ‘that do not sacrifice justice’; the government’s approach to talks so far was called ‘unacceptable’. It called the convening of a ‘traditional jirga’ by the President his constitutional right (although such type of jirga is not enshrined in the constitution) but only as long as it does not ‘interfere with the constitution and the rights of parliament’. It appreciates ‘the cooperation of the US’ but insists that it needs to respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty, as all welcome assistance from other countries needs to do. The strategic agreement with the US, which is under negotiation, was welcome as countering the threat by ‘terrorist bases’, as long as it does ‘not destroy our relations in the region’. The question on permanent US bases was somehow evaded, as ‘not on the agenda’. In the question of the journalists, the party’s spokesmen also had to face potentially damaging rumours that it had the backing, approval or even financial support of the US – which was clearly rejected. Noyan also pleaded for a stronger role of the UN in his country.

The most vivid description of the party’s raison d’être, though, came rather spontaneously, from the youngest of the four speakers, Khorassani, who grabbed the microphone to add to an answer from another colleague: ‘If there were right(s) and justice in this society, there wouldn’t be a need for a Right and Justice Party.’

Now, the party plans to build a basis in the provinces. ‘After the Eid holidays’, Ehsan Zia told AAN, ‘we will start travelling to mobilise and recruit activists and members.’ The founders’ meeting which continues to convene will set an ‘operational plan’ for it. The party also wants to establish its own parliamentary group. It already claims an unspecified number of MPs as members, among them some women.

Other prominent members of the new party include outspoken former deputy interior minister Abdul Hadi Khaled; Herati political analyst Ahmad Sa’idi, former deputy education minister Suleiman Kakar, originally a civil society activist (‘it is the first time I join a political party, but here are a lot of people with competence and integrity – and they are reformers’); Dr Kabir Ranjbar, another former reformist MP and leftist who says that he has dissolved his Democratic Party to join, as well as – yes, indeed – a former deputy justice minister of the Taleban, Mawlawi Jalaluddin Shinwari who said the opening prayer and claimed otherwise that he was just a humble founding member. (To be fair to him, he belonged to the royalist wing of the Taleban, ‘reconciled’ a long time ago and was taken off the sanctions list not so long ago.) Another prominent co-founder of the party is former Spanta advisor Dr Daud Muradian who was absent today; he will have problems, though, with the party’s line on talks with the Taleban of which he is a principal opponent.*

There was no government representative at the conference, not even as a guest.** The reaction of other democratic parties, also not present, ranged from a friendliness to strong reservations. The leader of one party AAN spoke to saw the establishment of Haq wa Edalat as a positive step and welcomed it, while another one said that some of the new party’s leaders ‘only went into opposition when they lost their government positions’ – a jibe against Atmar (and Amrullah Saleh, who initially also was part of the group who took this initiative but later parted ways with it) – and he believes that their intensions were focussed ‘less on democracy then on [new] positions’.

As hinted at above, there is a visible gender deficit in the party. The only women prominently involved today was Azita Rafat, another former MP, from Badghis, who conducted the press conference. One young lady from Takhar province, Shahima Alamsorush, wearing the badge of those who joined the party, later complained energetically to Ranjbar: ‘I have come to Kabul with so much hope and I thought it would be different here. But now I see that here the patriarchate [mard-salari] rules, too.’ Ranjbar reacted apologetically and, given the 14 months of preparations, not very convincingly: There just hadn’t been enough time to tackle ‘all the problems’ yet, ‘we are a new party’. Ms Alamsorush didn’t make the impression, however, that she was leaving the party right away. With Sima Samar present, this issue probably would not have come up so strongly.

Read an Afghan news agency report about the press conference here (in Dari).

* According to a paper by a recent Konrad Adenauer Foundation (in German, read it here) the current head of Afghanistan’s National Security Council and former Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta is ‘considered to be an influential architect of this political alliance’.

** An earlier attempt by Zabihullah Ismati, one of the few surviving activists of the ‘decade of democracy’ between 1964, when a new constitution was adopted, and the 1973 Daud coup, to establish an anti-corruption party was quickly hijacked by a number of government ministers. Ismati, who died soon after, told this author that he was extremely unhappy about this. His ‘Republic Party’ soon petered out and is not on the list of the registered parties anymore.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape