From the Arg to the Street: The Evolution of Afghan Democracy – Ali Masoud Madadi, Afghanistan

For more than two centuries, all political issues, concerns and problems in Afghanistan have been addressed from the Arg, which is the presidential palace. In the 200 years between the establishment of Afghanistan by King Abdurrahman Khan and the time of Afghanistan’s last king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, the country was ruled by an exclusive few high-ranking people in the Arg. The last king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, immediately replaced his father after being murdered on the 8th of November, 1933. He ruled for four decades but was not the central decision maker for the first three decades of his life, as his paternal uncles Mohammad Hashem Khan and Shah Mahmud Khan, who served as prime ministers, made most of the important choices regarding the country. He started governing independently in 1963 and introduced a new constitution in 1964, in which free elections, the parliament, universal suffrage and women’s rights were codified. In addition to this, Dr. Mohammad Yusuf was chosen to become the prime minister even though he was not a member of the royal family, which was a huge step towards democracy.

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Arg – Kabul (Source: wikiwand.com)

This was the foundation of the democratic movement in Afghanistan, and the decade that followed during which the country started moving toward modernization was dubbed as the “Democracy Decade”. During this time, freedom and basic democratic rights were practiced in the country, which consequently led to development and progress. Modern educational institutes were founded and developed, and later on, the next generation of Afghan politicians were produced by these institutes. In 1965, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was established by leaders and members comprised mainly of alumni from Kabul University or other Afghan institutes. Notable members included Nur Mohammad Taraki, Babrak Karmal, Hafizullah Amin, Sultan Ali Keshtmand and active women such as Anahita Ratebzad, Masuma Esmati-Wardak and Suraya Parlika.

In 1973, while the king was in Italy for a medical treatment, Sardar Mohammad Daoud Khan became the first president of Afghanistan after a bloodless coup now called the “white revolution”, which ended monarchy and established the Republic of Afghanistan. Later, in 1978, Daoud Khan was assassinated; his government was overthrown by PDPA in a revolution, and the soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was established.

The first step towards a democratic society was made by an individual, a king from within the Arg. The changes he brought led to wars between Afghan fighters (Mujahideen) and the Soviet Union, a Marxist government. Later on, the changes also brought on a civil war, which was the foundation of the Taliban. Three decades of war and turmoil took the lives of thousands and destroyed much of Afghanistan’s infrastructure, erasing much of the progress of the last years. That is not to say that Afghanistan has not learned from this experience.

In 2004, the provisional government in Afghanistan was replaced with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and Hamid Karzai was elected as president through a free election. From 2004 onwards, Afghanistan made great progress in spreading the democratic movement throughout the country. The country began rebuilding infrastructure, the educational system, and the army. Modern society and media are the best examples of Afghanistan’s progress in democracy after the war, and free media is nowadays one of the most influential factors for Afghans.

Government media as well as many privately owned television programmes, radio shows, newspapers, and magazines are working to promote knowledge throughout the country, with various topics covering everything from global and local news to entertainment programs. Free media easily attracts people’s attention, spreading news and helping leaders and followers connect and gather. In early 2014, 68 private TV stations and 22 state owned provincial channels were operating in Afghanistan, along with the national state TV. The media also includes 174 radio stations.  All the while, TVs are still strongly controlled and manipulated in Afghanistan’s neighboring country Iran.

Presses are also widely operated in post-war Afghanistan. In March 2015, BBC wrote that “Hundreds of press titles are published under a wide range of ownerships – from the government, provincial political-military powers and private owners to foreign and NGO sponsors.” Although journalists face danger in many parts of the country, the news lets people know what has been going on in the country. The country’s civil society activists have protested strongly against the violence that journalists are facing, and some organizations have been founded to work for the rights of journalists.

Civil society is another aspect of democracy in post-war Afghanistan. The civil society is powerful and attempts to keep an eye on governmental work and policies. Civil society organizations for transparency in elections are a great example of the work of civil societies during the elections. These organizations, such as the Fair and Free Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA), supervised the election process in 2014. Civil society activists have also inspired thousands of people to voice their opinion. One example is the Afghan protests against fraud in the 2014 elections that were in support of Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan presidential candidate. This led to a political crisis and then the formation of the current national unity government. Compared to the green movement in Iran’s 2009 election, we can clearly see the governments’ completely different reactions. The Afghan government did not use violence, and the leaders of the protest started negotiating with them, while in Iran, the protests turned into a bloody movement with the protest leaders being arrested and sent to jail. Despite the fact that Afghanistan is still not a very secure country and many people’s lives are still threatened, there are still aspects of democracy being practiced that encourage us to hope for the future.

Democracy in Afghanistan has played a very controversial role throughout history. The practice of democracy started from one change inside the palace that let go a two-hundred year legacy of a closed government, followed by a change from a monarchy to a republic and then to a socialist democratic government. Although three decades of war certainly took a toll on the citizens of Afghanistan, they benefited fully from the outcome. Before the war, democracy helped form political parties, freedom, elections, and human rights, but after the war, other aspects such as free media and civil society strongly reformed the social and political atmosphere. Afghanistan is a young democracy but it seem that despite having a corrupt government and unsafe state, people are practicing democratic means strongly, which is rare in the region. Democracy has still a long way to go in the Afghanistan, and the country will surely face many challenges, but there is a lot hope for progress, especially with youth taking power in civil society groups and media. The progress of practicing democratic values from the Arg to the streets of Kabul is a great change, and we can only hope for even more in the future.  

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