Role of Political Parties in the Democracy of Afghanistan

Keynote Address by Mr. Jean Arnaut
Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan

Conference on the Role of Political Parties in the Democracy of Afghanistan
Hosted by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs

Kabul Intercontinental Hotel
10:30A.M. – Saturday 17 April

I would like to thank Grant Kipper very much for his introduction, and all of you for allowing the United Nations to say a few words at the beginning of this very important conference.

I was asked by Grant and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) to try to provide all of you who are beginning this very important path toward the elections in September with an international perspective on elections, and particularly an international perspective on elections taking place as they will here in the wake of a long conflict.

I think it is an important subject, because while the Afghan experiments a unique one, it also shares some of the features of what has been since the early nineties, a process of transition that many countries like Afghanistan have gone through. I think it is therefore important for Afghanistan to learn lessons from those processes and perhaps even more important that it should not repeat the mistakes that have been made elsewhere.

The first question is: why an election? Why an election so soon? Why an election now, when Afghans have so much to do in terms of reconstruction and security that they possibly could achieve without an election?

The international experience does show that as soon as a country emerging from war can in a democratic way select its leadership, it is bound to make much progress with regard to security, reconstruction and governance.

Oddly enough, though, the state and government as institutions are some of the first victims of long-term civil wars. Either because the State itself has been involved in the conflict, or because members of the government have themselves been involved in the conflict on side or another — the legitimacy of the central government has inevitably suffered. As important but often more important, the government has suffered because during the war other institutions and groups have emerged, that in fact have managed to retain control of power — most of the time the military or armed groups.

Thetis why elections really perform two critical roles. Number one, they restore the legitimacy of the central institutions in the eyes of the population at large, and not just one group or another. Also based on popular choice they restore the authority of the state over those other institutions that have been competing with it forth holding of legitimate power. I think it is clear that from these two viewpoints, Afghanistan can in this sense benefit from an election– from that of legitimacy and from that of authority.

While it is true that the Emergency Loyal Jirga (ELJ) held in 2002 indeed conferred much legitimacy upon the current administration, I think that admittedly much more legitimacy could be and should be conferred on the new government through a free and fair election. I don’t have to tell you how critical the problem is of restoring the central authority in Afghanistan. In spite of two years of efforts to build new army, police and civilian administrations, as well as new institutions, it is a fact that the authority of central government still competes outside of Kabul with local power holders.

But while the international experience does stress the importance and usefulness of holding an election such as those scheduled in the next few months, that same experience also shows very clearly some of the dangers and risks associated with holding such elections so soon at the end of a conflict: first and foremost, of course, because an election is a confrontation – a peaceful confrontation hopefully, but a confrontation all the same. And there is always risk that as issues that have been fought over for many years are brought into the political agenda, this political and peaceful confrontation can spin out of control. Much responsibility will have to be exercised over the next few months so that legitimate electoral and political divisions do not rekindle the kind of divisions that have plunged Afghanistan into several decades of war.

The second point is that an election is about power, and if that powers not properly shared or distributed; if at the end of the election some people should find themselves excluded from any exercise of power, there is always the risk that this minority — and sometimes even a majority — will rebel against the outcome of an election, however free it may be.

Thirdly: If minimum conditions do exist for the population to express their views or for the variety of candidates to operate freely, then there is the risk that elections will not be seen as an exercise in legitimacy, but simply as an exercise in confirming the influence of those military or special interest groups that have been exercising influence during the war.

Finally, there is always another possibility that after the elections and once a new fully representative Government has been elected –if that Government does not hold the basic tools to exercise its power in terms of satisfying the basic needs in terms of security and reconstruction — there is always a possibility that its authority and legitimacy will be very short-lived.

Throughout the nineties there were indeed a number of examples of these elections that failed to be what they should have been, and that is an exercise in promoting legitimacy and authority. Just to remind you that in Angola in the beginning of the 1990s the losing party refused to recognize the outcome of the elections and re-started the war. In Liberia, where the elections were — from an electoral viewpoint– probably as free and fair as they could be, because of the power of the military rulers, the people really had no choice but to confirm the special position of those military rulers through the ballot.

Thesis why the holding of free and fair elections in Afghanistan the next few months cannot be separated from the continuous process of transition that addresses and overcomes these risks. We must control the possibility that the election will be an opportunity to increase mistrust and drag the country back into the psyche of an internal conflict. We must prevent a scenario whereby at the end of the exercise some minorities — significant minorities –part of the Afghan polity should feel excluded from the exercise. We must lessen the influence of special groups that hold power and make sure that there is as much of a level playing field among the various competitors, political parties and independent candidates. And we must as much as possible continue to work in the next few months so that the next government will have at its disposal the tools needed to respond to various needs in terms of security, reconstruction and governance.

Responsibility for this agenda rests with everyone. It rests with the international community, the Government, those power holders that exist throughout the country, and it rests very much with political parties themselves.

Of course we are not starting from scratch. Much has been done over the last couple of years that puts us in a good position to walk together along the last trek and last six months before the elections take place. And I think the best sign of this positive environment is the fact that the population of Afghanistan themselves want to vote. Clearly what we’ve seen now over the past three or four months in terms of registration, what we see in terms of people’s frustrations when they cannot register, shows that there are already– politically speaking — some very positive conditions to takes into the final phase of the electoral process.

But, as I also indicated, we also feel that more has to be done, and let me elaborate. I mentioned security as one of the first preconditions– and much more has to happen in the field of security, as a shared responsibility between the government of Afghanistan, its army, its police and the international community. Preventing the exclusion of any group from the electoral process is partly, of course, the role of the electoral system. I think we all feel confident that the draft that is currently being discussed is one that is inclusive and will not allow any group to feel excluded in elections at provincial level. Of course, the process of registration and elections will also be critical, and it will be the responsibility of the electoral authority and also the United Nations to do everything they can so that through registration, and through the mechanics of the electoral process, no Afghan will be denied their right to participation in these elections.

Creating this level playing field among all candidates, among all participants in the election, is going to be a major undertaking. If we look at recent incidents in Sacristan, where a representative of a particular political party was harassed by local authorities; if we think of what has been taking place in the last several months in one province after another in terms of preventing local political expressions from surfacing, I think we will all concur that perhaps the bulk of the agenda of the government and ours will indeed have to do with creating better conditions for everyone to participate fairly.

A couple of weeks ago in Berlin, the government presented a Programme of work that contains a number of steps that it is committed to take in order to facilitate this process. It involves broader disarmament throughout the country; access by all registered parties and candidates to government media; and instructing military and civilian officials throughout the country about their duty to be impartial and their responsibility to facilitate the operation of independent political parties and candidates.

Assai a minute ago, we will assist the government in every way that we can to make sure that the commitments made in Berlin with regard to creating the fairness conditions for all political parties are implemented. An ambitious Programme of disarmament has also been approved that will lead to approximately 40 percent disarmament within the next five months, including the concentration of heavy weapons. We at the UN will do everything to make sure that this Program is indeed implemented before the elections. And throughout the process we will act with complete impartiality. We will do this not because we don’t have our own preferences, but because being involved in an electoral process creates an obligation for us – an obligation that the legitimacy of the outcome will never be tainted by the accusation that somehow this outcome has been dictated by foreigners. Occasionally in the past couple of months, there have been accusations about UNAMA. These accusations are wrong, they are unfair, and we will always be at your disposal to entertain any suggestion that one way or another the UN has not been perfectly impartial in this process.

And finally a very last word: in spite of the difficulty and complexity of this agenda, we are optimistic. We are optimistic for one reason: We have consulted very widely – elders, representatives from variety of communities throughout the country, north, south, east, west and center about these elections. And the unanimous message that we have heard from people living sometimes in difficult security conditions and sometimes in difficult physical conditions is that we want this exercise to happen; we want the opportunity to elector new leadership and this is no doubt the foundation of the success of the election that we are going to be working together to achieve in four months.

Thank you very much.