New front in Afghan politics

Political alliance espousing democratic values set to launch as counterweight to religious and ethnic-based parties.
By Rahimullah Samander in Kabul (ARR No.51, 07-Mar-03)

Dozens of progressive, democratic parties have formed an electoral coalition in a bid to bolster the moderate wing of Afghan politics and take a leading role in the running of the country.

The United Nations and representatives from a number of western governments assisted in the creation of the National Democratic Front, whose members have already suffered intimidation from extremist organisations which appear to regard it as a threat to the existing political order.

The idea for the alliance - which is to be launched in Kabul on March 10 - was first raised after the Loya Jirga last June, when some Afghans expressed dissatisfaction with the grand council's decisions, notably the retention in power of various Islamic extremists and warlords who have sought to block democratic movements and parties.

Liberal-minded intellectuals have grown worried about the influence of extremists in President Hamed Karzai's transitional government, detecting their hand behind moves to ban cable TV, plus local-level prohibitions on women singing and being taught by men.

In January, a group of young intellectuals proposed a broad-based political coalition to counter the radicals and offer an alternative to religious and ethnic-based parties. They sought to support human rights and democracy, and gain support from other countries.

The National Democratic Institute, an American NGO affiliated with the Democratic Party, took an active role in the formation of the front. A member of UNAMA, the UN political office for Afghanistan, and political representatives from the Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and British governments also participated.

Abul Ahrar, chief of the party National Progressive Council of Afghanistan and coordination head of the front, said that 10 new parties initially worked together on the coalition: Mashal-e-Democracy, National Democratic Council of Afghanistan, National Progressive Council of Afghanistan, Protectors of Peace and Democracy, Republican Party, Union of Democracy of Afghanistan, Movement of Peace and Democracy, Democrats Center of Afghanistan, Welfare and Justice Party and Afghanistan Women's Union.

The parties were all formed after the collapse of the Taleban in December 2001. On January 27, after numerous meetings, they agreed to establish the new alliance.

The founders later drew in a number of other organisations such as the Developed Afghanistan Party, the Democratic Womens' Unions, the Union, Peace and Development Party of Afghanistan and some influential friends and supporters of the former king, bringing the total membership to around 60 parties.

The platform of the National Democratic Front, completed and presented by the founders to the membership on February 28, is highly progressive. Its main elements include equal rights for men and women; separation of military and civilian authority; freedom of speech and religion; a campaign against drugs and terrorism; the creation of a tribunal for trying war crimes; and the building of a civil society.

The alliance's founders are hoping to attract the votes of progressive, patriotic-minded Afghans in elections scheduled for June 2004, in order to help establish a democratic government.

The launch of the coalition has been kept under wraps because several extremist organisations have been threatening parties that have shown an interest in joining it. As a result, a number of parties have left the city.

Although the government has yet to introduce legislation regulating political parties - an eight-member committee of ministers is currently discussing a draft law on the subject - there is much party political activity in major cities and provinces.

The 1964 constitution formally recognised the right of political parties to exist, but no specific law outlining their rights and responsibilities was ever drawn up. After the communists took over many Afghans believed that political parties had been the source of the previous turmoil in the country.

Under the new legislation, parties will have to register with the ministry of justice. There are concerns that they will also have to register with the national intelligence service, Amniat-e-Milli, to whom they will also be expected to provide information about their articles of association, programmes and financial sources.

Some parties are concerned that registration will be followed by harassment, as they don't trust Amniat-e-Milli. Pashtuns, Hazara and Uzbeks fear they will persecuted on the grounds of their ethnicity.

The minister of justice, Abdul Rahim Karimi, told IWPR, however, that the proposed legislation only obliges parties to register with his ministry, "We won't permit the intelligence service to get involved in the process or to extract information from us."

Rahimullah Samander is an IWPR editor/reporter in Kabul.