The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan’s elections: political parties at the fringes again

Afghanistan’s elections: political parties at the fringes again

Only five of Afghanistan’s 110 political parties have finally had the chance to field candidates in the upcoming parliamentary election under their party logo. Another 31 parties had candidates on a preliminary candidates’ list but later withdrew the party affiliation. Many political scientists would say parties are a key requirement for a functioning democracy, yet in Afghanistan, they play a minor role in both elections and politics in general. AAN Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig tries to explain why the 2010 elections yet again pit myriad numbers of independents against each other (with material by Political Researcher Gran Hewad).

A questionable law, technical problems in implementing it, an astonishing lack of awareness about legal developments on the part of some parties and, it seems, the lack of courage on the part of others to run under their party name has led to a situation in which only five political parties are fielding candidates in the September 18 poll. In all, just 31 candidates will sport a party logo. That is out of a total number of around 2500 candidates (for exact figures, see the following blog). Let’s call these the ‘officially party-affiliated candidates’.

Afghanistan’s political parties have been pretty well systematically marginalised during the post-2001 political process. The political parties law came too late for the 2005 parliamentary election. During that poll, parties were not even allowed to register their candidates’ party affiliation on the ballot papers. At least this has now changed. But Afghanistan’s electoral law still only allows parties to field individual candidates, not party lists. And there is still a de facto ban on political factions in parliament. (Some ‘parliamentary groups’ were formed, but only played a marginal role, for they did not really reflect different political outlooks but were mostly rather randomly composed.)

The non-appearance of most of the parties on this year’s ballot papers, however, must largely be blamed on themselves.

Last year, the now outgoing parliament passed a new political party law which came into force on September 9, 2009. This law required a re-registration of the hitherto 110 officially recognised parties and gave them six months to do so, up to March 8, 2010. But for technical reasons — many parties did not receive the notification of the Ministry of Justice (or at least said they had not) — and a frightening lack of awareness about events in the parliament (a number of parties admitted they did not know about the new law), the MoJ granted another three months to apply. This period ended on June 5 (see our earlier blog on this here), dangerously close to the deadline for candidates to register on June 21.

Only five parties fulfilled the re-registration requirement by June 21 — the MoJ took some time beyond June 5 to process the papers. Almost 20 others ended up in limbo. They probably had submitted their documents in time, but the MoJ did not finish looking at them by the closing date for the registration of candidates. In practice, this means that they were discriminated against because only the five parties on the top of the pile got the chance to field ‘official’ candidates.

(Even the number of the currently registered parties is unclear. The MoJ website hasn’t been updated for a while and currently still displays only ten parties. The IEC says it has a list of 20. MoJ officials said on different days that 22 or 23 political parties ‘have met the conditions’ required for re-registration under the new law.)

That the re-registration might collide with the candidate nomination was apparently not clear to the parties themselves. On a preliminary candidates’ list, there were still 226 ‘official party-affiliated’ candidates from 36 political parties. On the very final lists, published on June 22, however, only 31 were left (see list at the end of the blog).

More than half of these 31 candidates are running for the mainly Shia, Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami (Islamic Unity Party), led by Second Vice President, Abdulkarim Khalili. A relatively new party, Hezb-e Musharekat-e Melli (National Participation Party) fields eight candidates, among them party leader, Haji Najib Kabuli, who is trying to keep his lower house seat in Kabul. He owns the recently banned Imroz TV channel and is known for his anti-Iranian stance. Two candidates each have been put forward by Hezb-e Muttahed-e Melli (National United Party) of Nur ul-Haq Ulumi, formerly one of the most important generals of the PDPA regime and a standing MP in the current Wolesi Jirga who is running again for a seat, and by Hezb-e Paiwand-e Melli (National Union Party). This is the party of the Ismaili sect leader, Seyyed Mansur Naderi, also a current MP. Its official candidates are Naderi himself and his daughter, Farkhunda Zahra Naderi (although not, officially, his nephew or two sons who are also standing). Finally, Seyyed Ishaq Gailani, member of another famous family of spiritual leaders, stands as the sole candidate for his Nohzat-e Hambastagi-ye Melli (National Solidarity Movement).

Gailani also points to another fact: that besides the ‘official’ candidates of parties, there are many who are party members or affiliated to parties but still run as ‘independents’. Gailani says his party has fielded 16 candidates altogether of which he thinks six are ‘able to win’. This is echoed by NUP leader Ulumi who also explains why some candidates do not disclose their party affiliation:

‘47 members of our party are candidates, but [run as] independent[s]. The reason is that they think that the public does not trust political parties. We are supporting our party’s candidates through our local party councils. They help them to collect the copies of voter cards required for registration, to organise their electoral campaign, to print their posters and to ask party members in the different areas to work as observers on behalf of the candidates on Election Day.’

Apart from their ‘official’ candidates, the five initially registered parties claim that they have some 100 more ‘unofficial’ candidates between them.

The most obvious reason that the number of ‘officially party-affiliated candidates’ sank is of course the new law. A party that is not licensed by the MoJ is not legal and cannot field candidates. (But at least the parties that submitted their documents in time could have challenged this if they had wanted to — or if there was a sufficiently independent body like a constitutional court to listen to them — which there isn’t.)

But there are many more reasons. Smaller and newer parties that are not linked to armed groups, often invoke government interference in the election process, its control over the electoral institutions and the fear of fraud to explain their apparent timidity. ‘The government has not enough credit to reassure the public of a clear and transparent election taking place’, said one party leader interviewed by AAN. Another interviewee explained that the government would ‘constrain our candidates through the IEC or ECC and create problems for them because our party opposes the government.’ And there is a widespread belief that the government plans to manipulate the election’s outcome in general in its favour: ‘People say that the Palace shortlisted 140 loyalist candidates to be elected. The government has the power to force the election bodies to bring these candidates into the parliament.’

The dangerous security situation in many areas is another reason for this secrecy. Local ‘strongmen’ do not like competitors, and less so organised ones
that have even the remotest chance to challenge their monopoly of power. (At the same time, the hesitation to disclose the affiliations of candidates makes it easier for parties to claim more members in parliament or other elected bodies than they actually have — because who can check who is with whom).

Other parties — like Jamiat-e Islami, Hezb-e Islami, Afghan Millat or the Republicans — more or less belong to the pro-Karzai camp or, at least, hope to be included in the post-election redistribution of high-level government posts. Since they know that the president is not a big fan of political parties in general, they probably had no big problem in dropping the registration of their candidates under their party names. In particular the former mujahedin parties (or more accurately, ‘military-political factions’ because the non-mujahedin Jombesh also falls into this category) can rely on the individual prominence (or notoriousness) of many of their members, often former commanders, in their areas of origin, while they cannot be sure that their party’s name — often linked to war-time atrocities — has much appeal to voters.

Among the exceptions are Khalili’s Wahdat and the Ismaili Paiwand: As parties of ethno-religious minorities, they are always in a weaker position than the mainstream Sunni ones. Their leaders need to project the appearance of an organised force behind themselves to secure their position in the government’s inner circle or at least their access to positions and protection. At the same time, their candidates can safely project their party affiliation because they mainly run in ethnically homogeneous enclaves (and are protected by armed groups).

Finally, there are accusations that the government — or the president himself — actively discredits political parties: ‘The president is mocking the political parties in his meetings with tribal elders and public figures,’ one party leader told AAN, ‘which means he does not trust them, or that he considers them as opposition forces.’

All in all, neither the number of 31 ‘official’ party candidates, nor the earlier figure of 226 reflects the real number of party-affiliated candidates during this election. It is far higher.

However, the original 226 party-affiliated candidates presented a much more representative spectrum of Afghanistan’s political landscape. There were contenders from all four of the major political currents in Afghanistan: Islamists (or former mujahedin parties) like Jamiat, Hezb-e Islami, Sayyaf’s Da’wat-e Islami, Mahaz or Harakat, former leftists like the Democratic Party and the National Peace Activists Party, new, pro-democratic parties like the Labour and Development Party and the Azadikhwahan and ethno-nationalists like Afghan Millat and the National Congress Party. The biggest number of candidates from this original list, 65, came from Dostum’s Jombesh, followed by Mohaqqeq’s wing of the Wahdat party (with 37). This points to a relatively high degree of organisation which will not have waned despite the parties not being official (see the full list of the 226 — without names, though, here).

Party affiliation is just one — and not the major — factor for voter mobilisation in Afghanistan’s elections. Nevertheless, political parties are a vital element in any democratic system – and should be also in Afghanistan if it wants to be a democratic country. The role of political parties, however, is dependent on their active participation in elections, their presence in parliament or in the broader process of how public opinion is shaped. Their current limited presence in the electoral process and the fact that the government actively undermines their role, combined with the astonishing passiveness of many of them, makes one feel the need for changes in the official attitude toward them. The minimum would be to allow them to make use of the rights they have under the constitution, the electoral and the political party laws. The creation of additional obstacles should be avoided. Of course, this also requires the parties to wake up, follow what is going on in parliament and in the political process in general and become more active and bolder so that they become much more visible in the public sphere. Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine any of this happening under the present government and with the next parliament again being elected on the basis of the party-less, party-hostile SNTV system.

Annex: List of parties in the 2010 election

The five parties with ‘official’ candidates (number of candidates on final list)

Hezb-e Musharekat-e Melli (National Participation Party): 8
Hezb-e Muttahed-e Melli (National United Party): 2
Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami (Islamic Unity Party): 17
Hezb-e Paiwand-e Melli (National Union Party): 2
Nohzat-e Hambastagi-ye Melli (National Solidarity Movement): 1

Other registered parties (parties without ‘official’ candidates on the preliminary final candidates’ lists in italics, in brackets: number of original candidates)

Hezb-e Jumhurikhwahan (Republican Party of Afghanistan): 1
Hezb-e Melli-ye Watan (National Fatherland Party): 1
Hezb-e Ensaf-e Melli (National Justice Party)
Hezb-e Da’wat-e Islami (Islamic Invitation Party): 9
Hezb-e Melli-ye Fa’alin-e Solh (National Peace Activists Party): 1
Hezb-e Melli-ye Hewad (Country’s National)
Hezb-e Solh-e Melli wa Islami-ye Aqwam-e Afghanistan (National Peace Party of Afghanistan’s Tribes)
Mahaz-e Melli-ye Islami (National Islamic Front): 13
Hezb-e Tawhid-e Mardom (People’s Unity Party)
De Melli Wahdat Wolesi Tehrik (People’s Movement for National Unity)
Hizb-e Wahdat-e Melli (National Unity Party)
Tolenpal Wuluswaki Gund (Social Democratic Party) [Afghan Mellat]: 8
De Sole Ghurdzang Gund (Peace Movement Party)
Hezb-e-Nohzat-e Faragir-e Demokrasi wa Taraqi (Broad Movement for Democracy and Progress)

Hezb-e Tafahum wa Demokrasi (Understanding and Democracy Party): 1
Hezb-e Ensejam-e Melli (National Coordination Party): 5

Non-registered parties with ‘official’ candidates on the preliminary final candidates’ lists

De Khalq Enqelabi Gond (Revolutionary People’s Party): 1
De Qaumuno de Milli Tafahom Nuhzat (Tribes’ National Understanding Party): 1
Hezb-e Eqtedar-e Melli (National Rule Party): 1
Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami (Islamic Revolution Movement): 2
Harakat-e Islami (Islamic Movement): 9
Hezb-e Adalat-e Ejtema’i (Social Justice Party): 1
Hezb-e Azadikhwahan-e Mardom (People’s Liberty Party): 1
Hezb-e Dimukrat (Democratic Party): 2
Hezb-e Hambastagi-ye Milli-ye Jawanan (National Youth Solidarity Party): 1
Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami wa Milli (Islamic and National Revolution Party): 1
Hezb-e Islami (Islamic Party): 6
Hezb-e Islami-ye Muttahed (United Islamic Party): 1
Hezb-e Refa’-e Melli (National Prosperity Party): 1
Hezb-e Solh-e Melli-ye Islami (Islamic National Peace Party): 2
Jabha-ye Nejat-e Melli (National Salvation Front): 3
Jamiat-e Islami (Islamic Association): 8
Jombesh-e Melli-ye Islami (National Islamic Movement): 65
Hezb-e Kar wa Tawse’a (Labour and Development Party): 1
Hezb-e Liberal (Liberal Party): 1
Kangara-ye Melli (National Congress): 2
Nuhzat-e Madani (Civil Movement): 1
Tehrik-e Wahdat-ul-Muslemin (Muslim Unity Movement): 1
Hezb-e Wahdat-e Melli-ye Islami (Islamic National Unity Party): 4
Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Mardom (People’s Islamic Unity Party): 37

Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where this was