Afghanistan’s Parties in Transition
Asia Briefing N°141
26 Jun 2013
Political parties are developing slowly in Afghanistan, discouraged by electoral laws and fragmented ethnic politics, but starting to shed their legacy as armed groups. Their newfound legitimacy will face its most serious challenge during the 2014 presidential election and 2015 parliamentary polls, as parties scramble to ensure their place in the new order that will follow the end of President Hamid Karzai’s constitutional mandate. Many obstacles remain, as the outgoing government threatens to revoke the licences of many, if not all, political parties, and introduce tough regulations on political party activity. The jostling for power could inflict lasting damage on the political system, because the government’s effort to curtail the number of parties, while a popular measure among many Afghans, could shut out moderate political movements and emerging youth organisations, leaving voters with limited choices among only the biggest of the tanzims, or former mujahidin parties. For its part, the international community should condition financial assistance on further government efforts to promote multiparty politics.
Some parties with roots as northern militias are preparing to rally their supporters for street demonstrations that could turn violent. This comes as all the major political players are leveraging pre-election displays of strength in negotiations over slates of presidential and vice presidential candidates. Major opposition players, including traditional rivals such as Junbish-i-Meli-Islami, Hizb-e Islami and the Jamiat-i Islami factions – leading representatives of the Uzbek, Pashtun and Tajik ethnic groups, respectively – are showing unprecedented unity in their calls for electoral reform. However, their activism, albeit for commendable goals, could lead to further destabilisation in the transition period.
Indeed, any profound disruption in Kabul politics would leave an opening for the armed insurgency. Failure to see an understanding emerge between the Palace, parliament, political parties and civil society on remaining electoral reform issues or another veto of the reform law approved by parliament would undermine hopes for a stable transition and play even more directly into the hands of the insurgency. Irrespective of political parties’ technical progress, if there is again manipulation in the manner of the 2009 and 2010 elections, the 2014 winner may lack the credibility and legitimacy the new era will require.
For their part, the Taliban do not seem prepared to launch a political party. Despite recent announcements to the contrary from ex-Taliban figures and the successful entry of another armed opposition group, Hizb-e Islami, into mainstream politics, the insurgents’ primary mode of political expression in the near future will remain fighting, not party politics. Nor does the opening of a political office in Doha offer any likelihood of a change in Taliban strategy in relation to entering politics. The overall implications for the coming elections – good or bad – remain unclear.
This briefing builds on earlier Crisis Group reporting on Afghanistan’s political parties to provide an overview of their current position and analyse their ability and willingness to shape the transition to the post-Karzai era, after a decade of government efforts to restrict political party functioning. It is based on interviews with political party and other stakeholders in Kabul and four regional centres of Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad. Without undertaking a detailed assessment of the insurgency, the briefing also includes interviews with insurgents to assess Taliban attitudes toward the party system. Its findings include the need for:
- Greater transparency in the implementation of laws and regulations on political parties to improve perceptions of impartiality.
- Greater independence of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), and consultation with parties to achieve an accord on electoral laws and a more transparent electoral process.
- Kabul’s support for pluralistic political development by providing funds for basic functions of parties that meet a threshold of popular support in elections.
- Deferring implementation of the requirement, in the 2012 political party regulations, that parties maintain offices in at least twenty provinces. Additional time may be required for parties to establish themselves, and for security conditions to allow party offices in remote provinces. The deferral period should at minimum extend beyond the 2014 presidential and 2015 parliamentary elections. If the requirement is not deferred, Afghan security forces should offer physical security for party facilities where requested by party leaders.
- Support by donor countries and the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) for these reforms, including conditioning continued economic and military assistance in the coming years on credible electoral reforms that allow for political pluralism.
Kabul/Brussels, 26 June 2013