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Afghanistan - Political Parties

After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 a multi-party system began to emerge in Afghanistan. A number of former Jihadi groups underwent significant reform and developed into political parties participating in mainstream politics. New democratic parties have also begun to emerge. In 2009, the development of political parties moved forward even further when a new political party law came into force. The new law outlined conditions for the registration of political parties: for example, parties now need to have at least 10,000 members, (previously they had only needed 700 members). At least 30 parties have now been registered and a number of other parties are still in the process of registering.

Political parties play a vital role in any democracy in encouraging political co-ordination and strengthening the accountability of government through organised and constructive opposition. Functioning political parties may be critical to Afghanistan's long-term democratic development and stability but they are generally unpopular and misunderstood, prompting most Afghan politicians to avoid affiliation. The US Government provides some technical assistance to political parties but what they need most is more political space, an electoral system that encourages party development, and civic education. Afghanistan is one of the most difficult environments for the development of political parties due to three decades of war, historical stigmas, cultural aversion, and current electoral practices. However, in order for Afghanistan to develop as a democracy, citizens must begin to rally around issues rather than only around ethnic or regional affiliation, and try to influence the government through an improved electoral process. Perhaps the most important three action items -- encourage Karzai to form a party, increase the vetting process of MPs, and support for a change in the electoral system -- are the most difficult since currently there is limited political will in the presidential palace for these changes.

Parties that have clear issue-based platforms, and are strong enough to meet the 10,000 party member requirement include the Republican Party, the Democratic Front and the National Democratic Participatory Front. Over 106 political parties were registered in Afghanistan in 2010, yet the overwhelming majority of politicians running for election choose to not list themselves on the ballot with a political party. In the August 2009 elections, 12 percent of provincial council candidates registered with a party, 20 percent of the presidential candidates officially affiliated with a party, and only 79 of 249 sitting MPs are affiliated. Most MPs refuse to disclose party affiliation. Their reasons are numerous.


After three decades of war, Afghans are suspicious of political organizations, since historically parties were synonymous with the armed groups that support them. The five major armed groups operating in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 are now some of the strongest parties.

Two thirds of the strongest political parties, according to a 2009 National Democratic Institute (NDI) study, are currently led by former warlords who commanded large groups of armed men. The two Presidential candidates who obtained the second and third most votes in 2009, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and MP Ramazan Bashardost, they would not consider forming a political party due to the negative stigma the term carries, and therefore would instead form "coalitions" or "groups."

However, there are signs that political parties are slowly losing part of this stigma, as party candidates fared better in recent elections than independent candidates, and some former militia-based parties are making the first steps towards the democratization of their leadership structures. In the 2009 Provincial Council (PC) elections, candidates affiliated with a party were 50 percent more likely to win. Also, in the case of the formerly militia-based Junbesh, the leadership of the party is now governed democratically -- by a board of twelve deputy chairmen who vote on all party decisions. In other former militia-associated parties, the foreign-educated sons and daughters of prominent warlords are starting to take on roles within the organizations, and their visions for their parties future involve greater democratization.


Afghan politics are dominated by the patronage system; if individuals support a party, they expect jobs and funds in return. Therefore, if a politician chooses to openly belong to one faction, they limit their options and funding streams, unable to switch sides as freely to obtain the best payoffs. Political groups generally do not focus on issues, but rather, shift allegiances in harmony with the political winds and to always "go with the winner." Several MPs told us they choose to never reveal their party affiliations due to this reason, and admit they actually belong to several parties, some of which have adversarial relationships.


Many Afghan politicians raise cultural issues as one of the key obstacles to party development, although some consider this issue a result of varying education levels. They claim political parties are not based on ideas or platforms, but rather the personal patronage to one strongman - "when Sayyaf dies, his party will die with him." Most parties are similar, and are referred to in the press and among politicians as "Qanooni's party" or "Mohaqqeq's party" instead of "Hezb-e-Afghanistan-i-Naween" or "Hezb-e-Wahdat-i-islam-i-mardum-i-Afghanistan ." Most do not know the names of the parties, but rather just the one strong man behind them. These traditional leaders are often the individual who protected a specific ethnic group during the war, and are therefore respected by members of that ethnicity. Also, since warlords are allowed in the Parliament, moving away their dominance remains difficult; improved candidate vetting would ameliorate this issue.


India, Iran and Pakistan in particular, and Turkey and Russia to a lesser extent, provide direct funding to political parties, according to most Afghan politics watchers. Reportedly, the conservative Pashtun parties are funded by Pakistan and the Gulf States, while other conservative Sunni parties, of other ethnicities, are also funded by the Gulf States. Iran prefers to fund Shia parties, while Russia and Turkey support the ethnically similar Turkmen and Uzbeks in the Junbesh party. At least seven political parties own television stations, radios stations, and newspapers. The son of Second Vice President Khalili told us that their Wahdat party has a new television station, but that it is impossible to obtain enough advertising to support the station. He claimed that the other branches of their Wahdat party are all on the Iranian payroll since it's the only way to support such expensive media outlets. Political party leader and owner of Emrooz TV MP Haji Kabuli also claimed to us that all television stations in Afghanistan lose money so their function has to be compensated by other means.


Since President Karzai took office, he has refused to form his own political party, instead favoring a patronage, personality-based, and tribal politics framework. This influences the entire political sphere, as there is little incentive to form an opposition when there is no coherent pro-government group based on any common principles or ideology. Instead, individual-based politics reign.

In addition, the Executive has frequently ignored Parliamentary decisions, which limits Parliament's authority, and further discourages the development of any unified opposition groups or political parties. Most Afghan politicians will settle for supporting the Executive in exchange for financial favors and other opportunities. Two of the most visible and morale-stifling examples of the Executive dominating over the Parliament was the decision to ignore, on at least three occasions during Karzai's past term, the Parliament's vote of no confidence or refusal to approve a Cabinet appointment.


The SNTV system allows every Afghan to vote once for an individual candidate, and in the case of the Parliamentary elections, one MP per province. Most votes are "wasted" on the most popular candidates, which allows unpopular candidates to win elections with few votes. In Kabul province, for example, Lower House Speaker Yunus Qanooni, MP and former presidential candidate Bashardost, and Hazara warlord Mohaqqeq took about 113,000 votes to win seats, while fundamentalist former warlord Sayyaf won with only 9,800 votes. At least five MPs won with about 2,000 votes, leaving them with virtually no mandate. This also encourages electoral fraud, since it takes little effort to stuff enough votes to win. If the electoral system changed to a mixed system, every voter would vote once for an individual, and once for a party. This way, half of the candidates would be elected directly, while half would be elected through parties. This reform would provide a convincing incentive for party formation, and improve the composition of the Parliament.


Some political party leadership has voiced concern that the Afghan government, in the form of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), is responsible for registering political parties in Afghanistan. The Kabul-based think tank Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) noted in a 2009 study that some political parties were not allowed to register under one MOJ but could do so after the Minister changed to one who was more sympathetic to their party. AREU recommends that an independent commission be established, with UN participation, in order to better monitor the political party registration process in Afghanistan.


The MOJ has at least 106 parties registered as of 2010, but only about 15 had obtained any representation in the Parliament. A new law published in November 7 2009 seeks to limit the proliferation of political parties by increasing the minimum number of individuals that need to register as party members from 700 to 10,000 before you can register the organization. Political parties were given until May 7 2010 to re-register. Although this law will help limit the number of parties -- a positive step -- it will likely eliminate several smaller democratic parties. Although this is unfortunate, hopefully it will provide a reason for them to consolidate into a more powerful party.


Some Afghan politicians note that due to the precarious security environment in many provinces, it is too dangerous to openly express political views. This is particularly common in the South and the East, and pockets of the North where violence is increasing.


Many of the smaller, democratic parties complain that their members are unable to pay party dues, and that the larger, primarily former mujahedeen parties receive illegal outside support from Iran and Pakistan.

US Government Programs

USAID supports political parties through the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Party support includes the training of mid-level party leaders on registering members, developing a long-term political party strategy that includes a party platform based on issues, campaign messaging, platform and leadership development, media, and help with the party registration process. The International Republican Institute (IRI) does not provide party-specific support; rather, it supports organizations that form the basic building blocks of parties: civic society groups organized by issues like youth and women's groups.

Most US Government assistance in this area has been provided around elections, in order to help parties and politicians register with the state to run for office; currently USD 10 million has been allocated for the 2009/2010 elections, primarily for political party and candidate development. Other assistance includes support for female candidate training, the establishment of eight election training and information centers which were used by political parties and independent candidates as a resource center and for public events and training. Since April 2006, USAID's work has focused on the institutional development of the National Assembly and Provincial Councils. Some assistance continues to National Assembly political blocs.

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Page last modified: 08-09-2021 13:04:21 ZULU