Young Afghan political party activists who received training through a pro-democracy initiative offer hope for effective democratic elections in the war-torn country, according to University of Mary Washington Professor Ranjit Singh, who recently returned from a 10-day research and reporting trip to Afghanistan.
Singh, associate professor of political science and international relations,
traveled to Kabul earlier this month at the request of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI). The nonprofit agency that works to strengthen democratic institutions worldwide was contracted by the British Foreign Office to implement a 27-month program to support the role of political parties in Afghanistan. Singh interviewed nearly 40 members and leaders of various Afghan political parties in an effort to assess the effectiveness of the program that ends this month.
“Robust political parties are considered essential to modern democracies,” said Singh, an accredited international election observer who witnessed the Afghan presidential election of 2009 as part of a delegation of foreign policy experts. Singh also has been part of observer delegations during the elections in South Africa and Namibia in 1994, Bangladesh in 1996, Liberia in 1997 and the Gaza Strip in 1996, 2005 and 2006.
In an effort to bolster stability and democratic development, the NDI support program provides party-related workshops, guidance and technical consultations. Party experts from around the world, including the Balkans, have relied on their own experiences to help Afghan party activists work with media, develop campaign strategies and platforms, create effective databases, target voters, select candidates, and much more, said Singh.
Political parties play significant roles, said Singh. They organize and mobilize citizens with common interests; translate those interests in policies; and stabilize a society by providing mechanisms for non-violent competition. So far, such parties haven’t been as successful in Afghanistan.
“They face a number of strong obstacles, including a public mistrust of parties that stems from decades of war,” said Singh. In addition, he said political parties confront a tendency towards ethnic divisions, dependency on warlords, a largely unchecked presidency, which make building party structures at the local level very difficult.
He noted a generation gap operating within many Afghan parties.
“Younger members are seeking to modernize their parties’ internal workings in the face of opposition from senior, established party leaders,” said Singh.
Security issues pose another hurdle to building effective parties.
“Afghan party members find travel among the provinces dangerous and expensive,” said Singh. “In some cases, they have to hide the training program materials they’ve received from Taliban operating roadside checkpoints. This makes it hard for parties to establish branch offices and conduct effective campaigns outside the capital area.”
Despite the challenges, Singh sees benefits of the two-year support program.
“The people who participated in the training and workshops have enthusiastically embraced the information and campaign techniques they’ve learned,” said Singh, who will submit his final report to NDI by the month’s end. “Many of the trainees are young, practical men and women, and their training often has enabled them to rise to positions of greater responsibility within their party.”