How can democracy be strengthened in Afghanistan?

Nearly 15 years after the first presidential election, there are very few national political parties in Afghanistan, a structural weakness that prevents democracy from taking root in the country

July 30, 2019 by Heela Najibullah
How can democracy be strengthened in Afghanistan?
Both current president Ashraf Ghani and former president Hamid Karzai have failed to establish strong political formations. Photo: Reuters

The one thing the current peace talks have done is to shed light on the weak political institutions and structures that make democracy in Afghanistan fragile. With the presidential campaign kicking off even as uncertainty looms over the conduct of the polls, and talk of the next intra-Afghan dialogue gaining momentum, the time has come to ask some fundamental questions regarding our political institutions and democracy.

Currently, the Taliban is propagating the idea that Afghanistan will not be a hotbed of terrorism and peace is achievable through the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. However, they have not presented any plausible and convincing arguments in support of this claim, and continue acts of terror against Afghan citizens.

During the course of my research on reconciliation, I have learned that the factors that can bring about a sustainable reconciliation are the rebuilding of relationships, the creation of safe spaces without bloodshed to express conflicting views and opinions, the capturing of the voices of the voiceless and building trust, all of which can be achieved only through democracy.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, in one of its handbooks on reconciliation, highlights how democracy underpins reconciliation; “…at many points in this Handbook, the authors repeatedly point out that reconciliation – the healing of relationships – needs the underpinnings of economic justice, of political and social power-sharing, and so on. Democracy and reconciliation are intertwined, indeed, interdependent.”

Yet, there has been no discourse on this, which is worrisome. The need of the hour is for the Afghan polity to raise queries and examine why this has not happened.

For example, why is it that since 2004 (when the first presidential elections were held), the Afghan polity has been unable to establish national political parties?

The major political parties currently active in Afghanistan were formed prior to 2001 and those formed after are individual-centric, and are driven by the ambitions of certain individuals to govern rather than formulate political agendas, narratives and manifestos. Parties such as the Green Trend and Afghanistan 1400 caught my attention when they were established as those involved were educated Afghans that hoped for reform, accountability and the strengthening of democratic values. However, how many individuals from the Green Trend or Afghanistan 1400 have put forward their candidacy for parliamentary elections or have made their political agenda known to the people ahead of the presidential elections? For example, the chairman of the Green Trend (Amrullah Saleh, whose office was attacked on Sunday) is the vice-presidential candidate of president Ashraf Ghani. Yet, it is not known how the political agenda of The Green Trend is influencing the presidential campaign and how it will contribute politically if its chairman becomes the vice-president. Even if this was known, how would president Ghani, who does not hail from a political party himself, ensure that there is a common shared political agenda with the Green Trend?

Neither Ghani nor former president Hamid Karzai have managed to establish any political parties. During elections, they have relied on existing political parties and established weak alliances with sections of the Watan Party, Jamiat, Hizbe Islami, Afghan Milat or Junbesh. As an Afghan citizen, I would like to know if the failure to establish political parties is due to the influence of foreign stakeholders, because of our own doing or both?

Since 2004, the Afghan government has appointed individuals from different political parties with divergent interests to govern the country with no common political agenda or goal while the Taliban leadership has shown consistency in their approach and narrative. The latter is similar to the approach and narrative of the Mujahideen in 1980s, and involves calling the government a puppet and illegitimate, and using Islam for their political means.

As an Afghan citizen, I do not know which political party or entity will represent my voice at the peace talks. To me, an open-minded, educated Afghan woman, neither the Taliban nor the current political establishment echoes my voice or dreams for my country. The Taliban does not represent me because I refuse to accept a political entity operating outside of Afghanistan. Their acts of violence and years of repression are a compelling reminder that as a family of women (three sisters and my mother), we would have simply not been able to survive under their Islamic rule, especially after they killed my father (former president Mohammad Najibullah) and uncle.

The current political establishment doesn’t represent me because extending my support to a politician is exactly that – support to an individual but not his political vision or political framework or an agenda based on socio-political or socio-economic views for Afghanistan. Although president Ghani has spoken about his vision for the future of Afghanistan and the kind of reform he wishes to bring economically, I wonder who will fulfill his vision if he is not in the political scene.

For many Afghans, especially the youth, the current peace process highlights the fragility of both our political institutions and the kind of political modus operandi we have established. This is because neither the Taliban nor the mujahideen, who are in various government positions, represent the Afghans who stands for more inclusive, transparent and accountable political processes. However, we have individuals in their own capacity that defend the constitution, human rights, socio-economic reform and democracy.

What is needed more than ever is for this vacuum to be filled; so moderate, open-minded, educated Afghans can have a united voice and front in ensuring a light at the end of this dark tunnel. The current peace process is devoid of such a front. However, this is a great point in our political history to ponder how we can pave the way forward for a democracy where institutions and systems are built, as opposed to continuing with a politics revolving around individuals. This is an important step and is the need of the hour, even if such a front may not be present at the next intra-Afghan gathering.

(Heela Najibullah is a PhD candidate at the university of Zurich. The article first appeared in 8am in Dari.)