Eyes on the Election: Two Afghan parties elect leaders

posted: 06-10-2012 / by: Gran Hewad, Obaid Ali and Thomas Ruttig

Two of Afghanistan’s most important political parties – Afghan Millat (Afghan Nation) and Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan - held leadership elections during the first days of October, Millat chose a new leader, Hezb, the incumbent. Although both parties belong to the unofficial government coalition in Kabul, they have recently joined a coalition advocating clean and timely presidential elections in 2014. In AAN’s continuing reporting (in reports and blogs) about Afghanistan’s political parties, Gran Hewad and Obaid Ali look at the outcome and context of the two events (with input by Thomas Ruttig).

The Afghan Millat party – one of the oldest in the country – has elected a new leader at its sixth congress, Stana Gul Sherzad, previously the party’s Secretary General. He replaced Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, the current Minister of Commerce and Industries, who had led the party since 1995. Ahady, who was present at the congress, congratulated his successor – and set another example of an elected leadership transition, still an exceptional case in the history of Afghanistan’s parties.(1) Sherzad told AAN that he had been the only candidate for the position after neither Ahadi nor the former head of the Independent Directorate for Local Governance and so far deputy chairman of the party, Ghulam Jilani Popal, stood for the position and another candidate withdrew in Sherzad’s favour. The previous fifth congress of the party was held five years ago in Kabul.

The new party leader, Stana Gul Sherzad, is 58 years old and was born in Sherzad district of Nangarhar province. He studied social sciences at University of Kabul. After doing his then compulsory service in the army, he worked as a teacher, and after the PDPA coup d’etat in 1978, migrated to Pakistan. After his return after the end of the Taleban regime, he worked for his party and did not hold any governmental positions. When elected leader of the party, Sherzad gave a speech, introducing himself as ‘not a khan, neither a wealthy nor powerful man, [but] a member of a middle class family.’ He spoke in favour of transparent elections and ‘clean’ election results. He also attacked the current government for failing to draw up a comprehensive strategy for combating administrative corruption. He referred to the Pakistani ‘rocket shelling of Kunar province’ but without mentioning the neighbouring country’s name, adding that Afghanistan ‘needs to sign strategic pacts’ with allied countries ‘for our own security and stability’. (Afghan Millat members, however, had participated in anti-Pakistani protests - for photos, click on 'Bildergalerie' on the party's website here.) He also called on countries still hosting millions of Afghan refugees not to force them to leave and on the Kabul government to develop a ‘clear plan for their return to the country.’

The approximately 1500 participants, who had been elected by the provincial branches of the party, also voted in 41 (from 76 candidates), of the party’s Shura-ye ‘Ali (Supreme Council)(2) – they include five women. This was during the three-day meeting that started in the Loya Jirga hall in Kabul on 2 October. They will hold these positions for the next four years. According to the party’s constitution, the 41 members of the Supreme Council and the party leader will elect the nine members of its executive council and a secretary for the party in coming days.

The congress also amended the party’s constitution. It decided to change the official name to 'Afghan Millat Party'. So far, the official name was ‘Afghanistan Social Democrat Party’ but it was always known as ‘Afghan Millat’, after its publishing organ that has been existing since the so-called ‘decade of democracy’ from 1964 to 1973. The party also had lost the Afghan observer seat in the (social democrat) Socialist International which it held for many years after 2001. It also abolished the position of deputy leader of the party. Furthermore, a procedure for the selection of the party’s presidential candidate was approved. While in the past, the party’s leadership council would select one out of two candidates, now the party’s provincial council secretaries have a vote as well. On the last day of the congress, the party’s old and new leaders, Ahadi, Sherzad and Jilani Popal, criticised the government’s policies on elections and reconciliation, but welcomed the series of strategic agreements concluded with other countries.

Afghan Millat is the party with the longest uninterrupted activity in Afghanistan.(3) It was founded in 1966 by the popular, German-trained former Kabul mayor Ghulam Muhammad Farhad, (1901-84) – known as ‘Engineer’ or ‘Papa Farhad’. During the anti-Soviet jihad, it operated in close cooperation with Pir Gailani’s National Islamic Front of Afghanistan (NIFA); former party leader Ahady is the NIFA leader’s son-in-law.

Often accused of being a Pashtun nationalist, irredentist or even ‘chauvinistic’ party, Afghan Millat has attempted, since 2001, to shed this impression by attempting to recruit members among non-Pashtuns(4). Although, with the cabinet position of its previous leader Ahady, it is part of President Hamed Karzai’s unofficial government coalition(5), it has joined 19 other parties and coalitions, in signing a ‘Democracy Charter’ in late September under a so-called the ‘Cooperation Council of Political Parties and Coalitions of Afghanistan’ that calls for clean elections and a greater role for political parties.

By contrast, Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan (HIA) – one of the major Islamist mujahedin parties (tanzim) in the country that has been linked to numerous war crimes and human rights abuses during the civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s - has re-elected its current leader. During a gathering of its leadership council(6) on 3 and 4 October, Minister of Economy, Abdulhadi Arghandiwal, kept the upper hand over Mawlawi Sarfaraz, a former Hezb commander from Nangarhar and member of the party’s leadership, and Engineer Muhammad Khan, a former Ghazni MP. All three candidates had been nominated from within and by the party’s ‘Founders’ Council’. Membership in this council is a requirement to become the party’s leader. Arghandiwal was elected for the coming two years. 35 candidates were also nominated for the 21 seats on the executive council; the results of this election have not been announced yet.

Arghandiwal, in a speech after his re-election on 4 October, announced that the party would introduce its own candidate for the 2014 presidential election. However, he kept the option open for talks with other groups in order to find a joint contender. The President, however, seems to prefer a successor from his own family.

Hezb-e Islami is also a part of Karzai’s unofficial government coalition and possibly the most influential political party there, with a number of ministers and a strong (unofficial) faction in the parliament’s lower house. One wing of the party, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is the second largest group in the current insurgency. In mid-September, it claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Kabul carried out by a woman that killed 12 people. This led to members of the Kabul-based faction of the party distancing themselves from Hekmatyar's faction in the strongest words used so far between the two sides when Hezb member and former MP, Abdul Jabar Shulgari, was quoted as saying: ‘After this attack there won’t be a big chance for Hezb-e Islami [sic – still using the same name] to negotiate with the Afghan government. This bombing now has shown the Afghan nation that Hezb-e Islami is not as moderate as they thought it was. This attack brings many questions to the mind of the people and raises many questions about the credibility of Hezb-e Islami.’ This still fall short, however, of an official distancing by the party’s leadership.

In what looks like a coincidence, President Karzai also talked publicly about the elections at a press conference held in Kabul on 4 October. Trying to diffuse concerns that he might stick to the presidency and alter the timeline for the elections, he declared that ‘elections will be held definitely, 100 per cent and on time,’; no circumstance, insecurity or ‘foreign propaganda’ would prevent a vote. He added that, ‘in 2014, when my term expires, I will not be a legal president of Afghanistan for even a day,’ and that, ‘any election, even if it's incomplete, is better than an illegal government’.

This contradicts, however, a statement of the First Vice President Marshal Muhammad Qasem Fahim made on 9 September, on Ahmad Shah Massud’s martyrdom day. There he said that in a situation like the current one holding accountable and inclusive election, ‘in which all Afghans can vote’, would be impossible and did not rule out a postponement of the upcoming presidential elections.(7) It remains to be seen whether the President’s latest statement is the final clarification of these issues.

(1) Ahady’s readiness to step down might also be linked to President Karzai’s preference that cabinet members do not possess a party membership.

(2) The members of the Supreme Council are:
Abdul Sabur Khedmat, Gholam Jilani Popal, Engineer Hamidullah Qalandarzai (former deputy communications minister and Khost governor), Dr Ghulam Faruq Miranai, Dr Muhammad Rahim Pashtunyar (he once led a leftist breakaway group, called Wolesi Millat that reunited with the main party after 2001), Ma’ruf Fazli (a parliamentary candidate in 2010 in Herat but disqualified by IEC), Abdul Ali Sarwari, Rahman Shah, Muhammad Ishaq Zaki, Abdulsamad Stanakzai, Abdul Hamid Namju, Faridullah Hessam, Engineer Raz Muhammad Faiz (a former Takhar MP), Gholam Sakhi Rahmanzai, Fazel Khaleq Shinwari, Mirwais Ahmadzai, Muhammad Sharif, Wais Sultani, Sher Agha Sayedi, Andalebzada, Muhammad Ayub Ishaqzai, Haji Nezamuddin, Muhammad Azim Spin, Shah Wali Ishaqzai, Sarbeland Khan, Muhammad Na’im, Muhammad Jan Naseri, Dr Nasim, Muhammad Ishaq Daqiq, Dr Ahmad Shah Zamanzai, Habib Rahim, Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, Muhammad Kabir Rahmani, Ajar Khan, Dr Abdul Qayum Aref, Rafiullah Rafi (a well-known political analyst and author) and (the five women) Roya Safi, Zarmina, Nuria Aryan, Roshan Watanpal and Zeba Safa.

(3) There is another faction, now called the Afghan Nation’s National Progressive Party (De Afghan Mellat Melli Mottaraqi Gund) led by Ajmal Shams, son of Shams-ul-Huda Shams, this faction’s deceased founder. It is not registered as a party in Afghanistan, but is active nevertheless.

(4) In an April 2009 interview with Tolo TV (source: BBC monitoring), Ahady said: ‘The Afghan Mellat party is for all Afghans. […] I strongly reject the claim that Afghan Mellat party is only the party of Pashtuns. […] We have members from all ethnic groups. We have offices in Bamian and Daikondi. There are many of our Hazara brothers and sisters in this party. We had a grand gathering the other day and more than 3,000 members attended it. […] Furthermore, we have many Uzbek members. I think we have more members in Rostaq [district in Takhar province in the northeast] than any other party. We have many supporters in Sar-e Pol and Badakhshan. We have many Tajik friends.’

(5) Before the 2009 presidential elections (and after initial indications that Karzai might not run again), Ahady had stepped down as Karzai’s finance minister and declared himself a presidential candidate. This was challenged by his deputy Jilani Popal who said this has not been decided by the proper party body(Tolo TV, 4 February 2009, according to BBC Monitoring). Later in 2009, Ahady dropped out of the campaign and the party supported Nangrahar MP Mir Wais Yasini as a candidate. This temporarily soured relations between Karzai and Ahady.

(6) The leadership council contains 205 members who were elected in the general session of HIA in Kabul in 2008.

(7) Source: AAN media monitoring.