Afghanistan is a country that has more than 50 officially registered parties and numerous more movements occupying its political landscape. Political parties are supposed to be domestic agents that shape and reflect the political will of a people. But in Afghanistan, there is a de facto connection and identification void between people and parties. Coming from a family background that places a lot of importance on political parties for political systems and having grown up in countries like India, Germany and Austira - strong and stable democracies -where the role of political parties in the course of their history and present day politics has been significant, I have often asked myself why is it that Afghans identify so little with political parties even though the spectrum of parties is so wide?
Political allegiances vary greatly in a country as divided as Afghanistan. The victor for one is the traitor for the other and given this turbulent and controversial history of political parties and groups one might easily understand these realities. This also explain why many afghans have entirely lost trust in political parties or their representatives then those who have not victor. But can and should this mentality be encouraged, when most stakeholders want long-term political development, stability, better ways of translating peoples demands (among other things through an effective legislature) and better ways of holding the government accountable to society's demands.
Compared to neighboring countries like Iran or Pakistan, Afghanistan has a relatively short history of political parties and organizations. Movements like the Weesh Zulmian, Abdur Rahman Mahmoodi's Khalq Party and Mir Mohammad Ghobar's Watan Party inspired the urban youth of the 1940s towards nationalistic and anti-colonial notions. Nevertheless, the ruling elite in Afghanistan have always feared organized political movements. This could be seen as a characteristic of authoritarian monarchies.
In the 1960s, Zahir Shah's government permitted members of political parties to run for parliamentary elections. This was meant exclusively for the parliament or Shura and direct involvement in the executive branch was neither encouraged nor supported. However, the fact that the law permitting political parties was never signed by the king and the ban of certain radical political parties on the left and the right eventually meant that these parties went underground in the late 60's. This discouraged transparency, enabled secrecy and left no space for political discourse to flourish, in turn these features became fundamental part of political party structures in Afghanistan.
As the republic was proclaimed after Mohammad Doud Khan's 1973 coup d'état, Ghorzang-e-Milli was created. Although some leftist assumed top posts in this government, a zero tolerance for opposition groups, particularly radical Islamic parties, was predominant. This policy eventually set a precedent for one-party rule that was perpetuated in the Peoples Democratic Party's (PDPA) Khalq and later Parcham faction's politics and policies. Though, Najibullahs's government undertook some attempts towards power-sharing and policy changes in accordance with Soviet policy changes (Glasnost and Perestroika), which was felt all across the East/Soviet Bloc countries, nevertheless this was a" controlled" attempt, guaranteeing the leading role of PDPA/Watan Party.
The 1990's witnessed how the loss of a common cause and contest for political and military power quickly dissolved the already loose alliance of the Afghan Mujahidin groups, creating chaos and instability in unprecedented ways. The four year rule of the Mujahidin could be seen as the only multi-party coalition rule in Afghanistan but a multi-party rule that definitely went wrong. This was then followed by the totalitarian regime of the Taliban.
In 2003/04, Afghanistan adopted a new constitution, one largely based on the 1964 framework. But unlike the 1964 constitution, this one foresaw and guaranteed the creation and rights of political parties. Nevertheless, contemporary political parties in Afghanistan still face a lot of social and political challenges. Specially, with President Karzai showing no reluctance about his distaste for political parties and organizations – whether on TV, at public events or university graduation ceremonies. Although this could be seen as his genuine conviction, it also reflects his reliance on patronage networks rather than organized party structures. Exploring this quandary further, systemic and structural hinderances like the electoral system, a strong and influential executive branch and perpetual security challenges have brought about a halt in the development of political parties.
The Single Non-Transferable Voting system (SNTV), simplistic in terms of usage, understanding and counting, favors independent non-party candidates. For party members to even have a chance of getting elected, complex strategic planning becomes crucial. If voters are widely dispersed party candidates have even a lesser chance of getting elected. In turn, party fragmentization is fueled by SNTV. Another major disadvantage of SNTV is the rise of wasted votes in multi-candidate constituencies. The higher the percentage of wasted votes, the weaker the Voter-MP relationship.
Political parties on the other hand, are in themselves one of the most undemocratic institutions in Afghanistan. They function according gerontocratic and inherently inflexible vertical structures. Gerontocratic and hereditary structures that are imbedded in the broader Afghan culture, dominate the political culture like an unwritten canon. Top-down hierarchies also apply to communication and consultation mechanism of parties between their national, regional and local levels. This is specially highlighted during policy-making, decision-making and party leader determination processes, which usually revolve around the elitist member's circle at the national level. "Parties are seen as the support networks for individual politicians rather than being the organization drivers of those individuals" is how "Political Parties in Afghanistan: A Review of the State of Political Parties after the 2009 and 2010 Elections" conducted by National Democratic Institute (June 2011) put it.
Compared to their western counterparts, parties in Afghanistan lack distinguishable platforms and concrete views on methods of achieving their aims. Exhibiting differing platforms and views is one of the main functions of political parties, the lack of which has led to the absence of political competition based on principles in Afghanistan. The political party landscape evolves primarily around personalities rather than principles. In addition, lack of a day-to-day political performance, election fixation and ethnic based party affiliation has tarnished the image of political parties making them unreliable institutions.
Political parties, as they have grown along social divides or cleavages (religious/secular, urban/rural, capital/labor) in established western democracies, are not constructs that can be found in Afghanistan, at least not at the present. Nonetheless, competitive pluralism is slowly but steadily taking shape. Whether pluralism can actually gain a lasting foothold, and political parties can fulfill their functions as translaters of society's demands into political ideas and become bridges between people and government still remains to be seen, signs pointing towards these directions can vaguely be seen. Political actors are taking more pragmatic steps towards politics of consensus. While this is contradictory to the idea of competitive pluralism at the first glance, it seems to be a necessary pre-stage in the Afghan case. Most of the stakeholders and political actors, be it former leftists or Tanzim warlords have had to learn the hard way that politics of consensus and mediation is the only way to bring about some kind of stability and ensure security. This in turn, has led to coalitions, front or association formations. Yes, they are inconsistent and election fixated, but they have brought about some clarity in the congested space of political parties and engendered slight tendencies of social and political cleavage to take shape.
Here are some recent events indicating the growth consensus politics:
1) Calls for broad-based inclusive talks with the Taliban are heard from every direction. Key international facilitators, in this case the U.S. and Pakistani governments, regional actors like the banned pakistani Tahrik-e-Taliban, the Afghan Taliban leader Mulla Omar and the Afghan Government on its own terms, have all signaled their willingness to meet at the negotiating table. Although stalled right now, it is just a matter of time before talks take place. Disagreements on Taliban-inclusion policies among some oppositional alliances, among others due to being broad-based multi-ethnic formations, indicate that whoever assumes power after President Hamid Karzai is likely going to continue this course.
2) Another sign of consensus politics with a positive effect is the alliance of cabinet members with opposition groups in order to ensure democratic principles are upheld according to the Constitution in the preparation for and execution of the elections. Many parties, being one-man parties, pursue personal ambitions in these alliances, which have often proven to be election-fixated, ineffective and unsustainable in post-election stages. Nonetheless, if personal ambitions lead to stronger emphasis on acting in accordance with the Constitution and the rule of law, this is definitely a positive sign in a country like Afghanistan.
3) Calls for a Ijma-i-Milli from non-oppositional groups (and President Karzai) or prominent independent figures equally indicates the importance placed on consensus. While the methods may differ, the goals are similar.
These changing trends, in turn, have multiple effects on parties and party coalitions. Firstly, more emphasis is put on principles rather than personalities as there are simply too many personalities in these coalitions for one to dominate. Secondly, joint and agreed upon platforms gain much more importance than in single parties. Thirdly, a spillover of values takes place from more internally democratic parties to less internally democratic parties. Finally, due to the inherent pressures of coalition politics, namely fear of member loss, leaders are forced to focus much more on inner party communication and consultation mechanisms as well as day-to-day politics, strengthening the base and giving a rise in accountably.
Thus political parties seem likely to take an increasingly pivotal role in Afghan politics. Yet caution is advised. While regulations that ensure broad-based multi-ethnic political parties to emerge are being taken, systemic and structural hinderances of the political system that limit the potential of political parties to take part in the power-sharing process could lead to history repeating itself.