Does Afghanistan's president have a hidden agenda?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2005, 12:00am

If Afghanistan's first popularly elected National Assembly were to descend into bickering and bedlam, as some analysts fear, then a good part of the blame would be placed on the country's first popularly elected president, Hamid Karzai.

Largely due to Mr Karzai, parties have been outlawed from the National Assembly and the provincial councils, which will consist only of independent members elected this Sunday.

This will make the task of managing unruly legislators or dealing with disparate demands much more difficult.

Mr Karzai may go down in history as the first non-authoritarian leader to be vehemently committed to party-less democracy.

'He has done all he can to retard the development of political parties,' said Peter Dimitroff, country director of the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI). 'His true agenda is a mystery.'

Said nephew Jamil Karzai, who heads a youth party: 'I always tell him a country cannot be ruled without political parties. Otherwise, instituting democracy would be difficult. But he doesn't want to be associated with any party.'

Several reasons are advanced for Hamid Karzai's extreme antipathy towards political parties.

'He sincerely feels that political parties have been responsible for national crises not only in Afghanistan, but even in advanced nations such as Germany,' said Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, a presidential adviser on international affairs.

Mr Karzai believes Afghans suffered for three decades due to communist and Islamist political groups, and do not want parties. But there are other theories.

According to the most sinister explanation, Mr Karzai is a would-be autocrat seeking to ensure there is never any organised opposition to his rule.

As a result, political parties have been allowed to officially register with the Justice Ministry (76 have already done so), but are prevented from playing any direct role in Afghanistan's nascent democratic institutions.

New parties have been formed by businessmen, lawyers, journalists and other professionals intent on utilising the emerging opportunities as a democratic political culture develops in Afghanistan.

Others have been set up by former communists who held sway in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of them have returned from exile to be reborn as social democrats who even support the US military presence in Afghanistan.

But many other parties are old groups with geographically defined ethnic support and often a strong Islamic orientation. They are usually led by ultrareligious commanders who fought the Soviet occupation and then each other, destroying Kabul.

The war has left deep scars on Afghanistan's body politic. In the popular imagination, a political party is often identified with the ethnicity of its leader.

This is said to be another reason why Mr Karzai does not want to be associated with a party. As last October's presidential election demonstrated, despite being a Pashtun, which is the country's largest ethnic group, he is the only politician with multi-ethnic support across the country.

If he sets up his own party, it is felt, there is the danger it will be seen as another Pashtun grouping.

Yet experts believe Mr Karzai's resistance to the development of a political-party system will hinder the progress of Afghan democracy.

'The political arena is ready for the growth of parties,' said Mohammad Musa Mahmodi, an analyst with the NDI. 'People are beginning to realise that political parties are an important component of democracy.'

Many parties are busy signing up new members. Mr Karzai's nephew, who is standing for the National Assembly from Kabul, is focusing on youth. He estimates that more than half of Afghanistan's voting population is aged below 35.

He has devised an elaborate four-tier system for enrolling members to his National Youth Solidarity Party of Afghanistan.

'We do a lot of checking of members,' said Jamil Karzai. 'For instance, if they're from other parties, we try to find out if they're linked to warlords. It takes three to four years before we're sure of the loyalty of a member.'

His party, which he set up seven years ago, has 48,000 registered members. But none of the parties has yet devised a structure of internal democracy. They are dominated by their leaders.

'If the National Assembly is seen to be bickering, non-productive and an obstacle to reforms, then it could end up losing the confidence of the people of Afghanistan,' warned Mr Dimitroff.