Originally posted December 2009
In the spring of 2000, some 25 Afghan women and men secretly gathered in a private house in western Kabul. Many of them had never met each other before. Therefore, they were divided in two separate groups that sat in different rooms. These courageous people belonged to a dozen or so political parties and groups that had formed in the underground and now waited for foreign visitors. One of the participating groups had decided not to write a party program of its own but instead adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A second one was a network of Pashtun tribal shuras that tried to organize resistance against the Taliban from Quetta (Pakistan) and had sent a woman as its representative. The participants wanted to let the world know that there were still people in Afghanistan who believed in internationally accepted norms and values.
A UN worker, huddling in a rusty taxi, was spirited in after having been driven in spirals through Kabul’s empty streets. A visiting high-ranking diplomat of a West European country had backed out of the dangerous meeting only hours earlier.
Eighteen months later, five participants of this meeting flew to the UN-chaired conference in Bonn that would decide on Afghanistan’s post-Taliban political future at the invitation of the United Nations and the German government. But one day before it opened, this fifth delegation was told that it could not sit at the conference table.
Those in Kabul and Bonn referred to themselves as “democrats.” One of their early activists, however, cautioned them, when they later met in a strategy workshop in Islamabad. “We are only half-democrats. The real democrats will come after us. We have to prepare the ground for them,” he said.
The history of political parties in Afghanistan goes back more than 100 years, to the first constitutionalist movement (1903-9). From the beginning, most of these groups strove for reforms of the tribal-aristocratic monarchy and some form of parliamentarianism. After World War II, Afghanistan saw two phases of liberal opening (1947–51 and 1963–73), when a free press and proto-parties emerged which, however, were not legalized and therefore were unable to participate in elections. (Although they managed to get individual candidates elected.) In 1964, Afghanistan became a constitutional monarchy. Between 1987 and 1992, under President Mohammed Najibullah, a phase of “guided party pluralism” followed. Political parties were officially registered for the first time, but mainly leftist groups took up the offer.
By the mid-1960s, the party spectrum had differentiated into the three political currents that still dominate today: the Islamists, the secular leftists (now of more social democratic leanings), and the ethno-nationalists. The new democrats emerged as a fourth current after 2001. They could tie in with those earlier democratic experiences.
All parties attract mainly the educated classes. But as a result of the Afghan education system — which favored the sons of the Pashtun tribal aristocracy who joined schools and universities in the urban centers but maintained their links with their original communities (useful in times of regime collapse) — Afghanistan’s political parties are not entirely urban phenomena. Those parties, however, never had much time and space to come into the open and build constituencies.
In the early phase after 2001, Afghans in general found democratic principles to be attractive. They contrasted these principles with their experience from three successive anti-democratic regimes, which were accompanied by state and morale collapse, general lawlessness, and impunity. In 2004, a survey showed that only 12% of Afghans rejected democratic reforms, but they wanted them be harmonized with Islamic principles. The authors concluded: “It seems that no strong opposition to democracy develops … from the support of sharia.” The broad popular mobilization for the Loya Jirgas in 2002 and 2003 as well as for the first election cycle of 2004/05 showed the significant interest of Afghans in political participation. Even Islamist parties were compelled to integrate the democratic discourse into their political rhetoric and programs.
However, this enthusiasm has waned. The low turnout during the 2009 presidential elections was not only the result of Taliban threats but also of popular disenchantment about an externally manipulated democratic process.
In the post-2001 period, political parties in general — and the democratic ones in particular — have been sidelined in the political process, particularly from elections. In 2003, the government procrastinated about the political party law. The parties repeated the mistake of their moderate colleagues in the 1960s, waiting too long for the official “green light” to become active. During the 2005 parliamentary and provincial council elections, only individual candidates were allowed to run but they were not permitted to add their party affiliation on the ballot papers — in contravention of the law. The complicated voting system (SNTV) added to the marginalization of parties. The United Nations contributed with sham consultations held with the parties after the decision on the electoral procedure already had been made. A leading force behind this exclusion was the President, who had adopted the populist belief that parties in general were responsible for the civil wars.
Uncoordinated, without significant resources, and under pressure from both the government and the warlords — whose militias were still not disarmed — the largest alliance of Afghan democrats won only eight seats in the lower house in 2005. Furthermore, these deputies failed to coalesce and to link up with liberal independents. Depleted of their scarce resources, those parties lost momentum. Their membership and structures crumbled, although most of these organizations still survive.
During the 2009 presidential elections, almost all Afghan political forces — including the democrats — were divided about which candidate to back. Most of them finally opted for Dr. Ashraf Ghani and his reform program because, as one party leader said, he was “the most democratic amongst the candidates.” Even parties from the same alliance opted for different candidates. This reflects the fact that personalities still weigh heavier than programs, and that the internal cohesion of those parties and alliances is still weak. On the other hand, it is the potential strength of pro-democratic parties that they try to overcome the ethnic divide and to develop “national” programs.
At the same time, they compete with the tanzims on an extremely uneven playing field. The tanzims have a clear advantage because they maintain armed militias, occupy positions of power, and have illegal access to government and external resources.
Since 2007, as was clearly visible during the 2009 elections, two poles have emerged in Afghanistan’s weakly consolidated and extremely fragmented political landscape: the Karzai camp and the ex-mujahidin National Front as the strongest opposition force. The pro-democratic groups try to maintain equidistance without always being able to resist the temptations of the financially much more robust main camps.
While democratization was advocated as one element of the post-2001 Afghanistan international mission, in practice the Western democracies neglected their would-be Afghan democratic allies. There was a perception that any support for alternative political forces might undermine President Karzai and the over-centralized presidential system tailor-made for him. As a result, a potential counterweight for the surging Islamist forces, both in the insurgency and amongst Karzai’s allies, is missing.
. The parties represented were: the Republican Party, the People’s Party, the Afghanistan Freedom and Democracy Movement, the Islamic and National Council of Afghanistan’s Tribes and the Alliance of Fighters for Peace and Progress of Afghanistan. See Thomas Ruttig, Islamists, Leftists — and a Void in the Center. Afghanistan’s Political Parties and where they come from (1902-2006), Konrad Adenauer Foundation: Kabul/Berlin 2006, pp. 16-17.
. Vladimir Boyko, “The Origins of Political Parties in Contemporary Afghanistan in the Light of New Archival Data,” Central Asia Journal, Vol. 46 (2000), pp. 189–205.
. Werner Prohl and Felix Werdin, Demokratie und gesellschaftlicher Wandel in Afghanistan. Empirische Untersuchung zur Akzeptanz demokratischer Werte in einer islamisch geprägten Gesellschaft (Kabul: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Afghanistan Office, April 2004), S. 2, 21.
. “Afghanistan was destroyed, tormented, put through lots of suffering because of the bickering, because of the in-fighting, because of the political agendas of the parties that were not national. Afghanistan needs to have a day off on that.” Quoted in Talking Point Special: Hamid Karzai, BBC, October 1, 2003, Transcript, , December 15, 2007.
. The term tanzim is used by most Afghans for the mujahidin parties that fought the Soviets and the regime backed by them between 1978 and 1992. Nowadays, they are sometimes labeled “jihadi groups.” They still are linked to militias and are in fact military-political “parties.”
. A recent count reveals 110 registered political parties. See .