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Afghanistan: Political Parties Exist In A Legal Limbo That Favors The Strongest

As Afghanistan seeks to regain a sense of national unity after years of civil war, the process is being hampered by an absence of nationwide political parties. Instead, most of Afghan politics is in the hands of powerful figures or factions whose support comes from one or another of the country's ethnic groups. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel was recently in Kabul and spoke with a political expert about why there are so few broad-based parties in Afghanistan and what is needed to foster them.

Prague, 4 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When Afghanistan's new Education Minister and top internal security adviser Mohammad Yunis Qanuni formed a new party recently, he did it in the way that has become customary in Afghan politics.

First, he told the press that he would soon create a nationwide political organization -- called the Nehzat-i-Melli, or National Party -- which would be open to all ethnic groups. Then his supporters opened a headquarters in Kabul to recruit members and to prepare materials describing the party as a patriotic effort.

This week, the secretary of the new party, Sayyed Bani, told Reuters the party is creating educational centers across the country. Bani said, "We want to set the intellectual foundation for the future generation. First, we try to win people's hearts, then their political allegiance." He did not detail the party's ultimate goals, which some news reports have said could include a Qanuni bid for the presidency in 2004.

But one thing the new National Party has yet to do is officially register itself with the government. The reason is that Afghanistan currently has no laws that specify either how to register a political party or what requirements it must meet to function legitimately.

That leaves the new National Party in the same informal universe occupied by all of Afghanistan's other political organizations. These, too, espouse national unity but are under no legal compulsion to be nationally based. Instead, they are headed by a single powerful individual or faction, mostly drawing support from one or another of the country's rival ethnic groups.

Qanuni, who until recently was Afghanistan's interim interior minister, is an ethnic Tajik from the Panjshir Valley. His party is dedicated to the memory of assassinated Panjshiri commander Ahmad Shah Masoud. Masoud successfully battled the Soviets and then the Taliban and is a hero to ethnic Tajiks and some other Afghan minorities. But he is a controversial figure for Afghanistan's largest group, the Pashtuns, from which the Taliban were mostly drawn -- making it uncertain how much national appeal Qanuni's new party will have.

Some of Afghanistan's other political parties are the Jamiat-i-Islami, an Islamic party made up mainly of ethnic Tajiks; the Jumbish-i-Milli, founded by ethnic Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum; and the Hezb-i-Wahdat, a coalition of Shiite Muslim groups largely comprising ethnic Hazaras. All of these parties are backed by armed militias that are affiliated with them.

Political experts in Kabul say that political parties in Afghanistan are likely to continue to be characterized by ethnic-based groupings around powerful figures so long as the country has no constitutional protections for ordinary citizens entering political life.

Aziz Ahmad Rahmand, the head of the department for contemporary history at Kabul University, told our correspondent recently that Afghanistan's current constitution contains no law on political parties. That constitution dates to 1964 and was approved by then king Zahir Shah, but only after draft clauses referring to political organizations were removed.

"[Political parties in Afghanistan] have not been registered officially because we don't have an approved law regarding political parties. The law on political parties in the constitution of 1964 was not approved by the king, so we still don't have such a law."

The 1964 constitution became the current law of the land when it was adopted -- without clauses referring to the monarchy -- at last year's Bonn conference. Under the Bonn accords, a Constitutional Loya Jirga is to be convened within 18 months of the establishment of the Transitional Authority, which took office late last month.

During Afghanistan's recently concluded Emergency Loya Jirga, there had been some hopes in Kabul that the delegates would establish a parliamentary commission that might have the power to approve a law on political parties prior to the rewriting of the constitution.

But efforts to create the parliamentary commission collapsed in disagreement over how members should be elected, and the Loya Jirga concluded only with a resolution that some delegates should remain behind in Kabul to discuss the election question further. It also has yet to be decided whether the parliamentary commission would have legislative or merely consultative powers during the term of the Transitional Authority.

Political experts say that many Afghans are interested in creating political parties, but they are likely to wait first for legislation that would protect political organizers from arrest. They note that charges like sedition can easily be brought by governments when political parties are not registered. They also say organizers are currently discouraged by the poor security situation in many parts of the country, which makes travel difficult and increases local suspicion of outsiders.

Rahmand says another obstacle to forming political parties is Afghanistan's ruined economy, which forces ordinary people to focus on feeding their families rather than on politics.

"There is no doubt that the people of Afghanistan are very interested in creating new political parties, which can be a step forward toward democracy and fairness. But there is still the obstacle of the economic problems which people face. And that is why many people don't find the opportunity to create new parties."

The professor of politics says that economic problems particularly keep many of Afghanistan's intellectuals out of politics, though in the past they have played key roles. The role of intellectuals was particularly important in the 1960s, when much of the country's political activity originated in the professional class that developed with Zahir Shah's efforts to modernize the country.

Barnett Rubin, an American political expert on Afghanistan at New York University, has described the Afghan intellectuals' past role in his book, "The Search for Peace in Afghanistan." He wrote, "Although political parties were not permitted to compete in parliamentary elections, various factions of the intelligentsia that had arisen from the state's expanded educational system began to organize politically, launching nationalist, communist, and Islamic movements with corresponding links to the international system."

As Afghanistan now tries to recover from more than two decades of warfare, its challenge will be to keep divisive politics from again plunging it into conflicts. The bitter rivalries between nationalists, communists, and Islamists paved the way for the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan in 1979, beginning a war which continued for 10 years before Moscow withdrew.

Moscow's withdrawal was followed, in turn, by a civil war between the victorious Afghan Islamist mujahedin groups and then the conquest of most of the country by the fundamentalist Taliban. The Taliban collapsed late last year under pressure by U.S. bombing, making way for the Bonn accords and an internationally backed effort to develop a stable Afghan government.

Under the Bonn accords, the current Afghan government is tasked with leading the country to national elections within two years. Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai has said his primary goals are to foster the economic development of the country and to put an end to warlordism. Both goals are also widely seen as prerequisites for Afghanistan developing a broad-based political life before the next government is elected in 2004.