Afghan election plan triggers new clash with Western backers

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 7, 2010 

KABUL — Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission on Thursday reaffirmed plans to hold parliamentary elections on May 22 but pleaded for financial support from the international community to fund the voting.

However, after last August's fraud-tainted presidential election, which the international community largely underwrote, the principal funders have indicated that they won't bankroll another Afghan election without extensive reforms in the election commission that probably would push election day into the summer.

The skirmish over funding the election is the latest round in a protracted battle between the U.S. and its allies and Afghan President Hamid Karzai over government reforms, law enforcement and anti-corruption measures that President Barack Obama has said are essential to stabilizing Afghanistan and defeating Islamic extremists. An international conference on those and other topics is scheduled for Jan. 28 in London.

Western donor nations suspect that the latest decision by the largely discredited Independent Election Commission may be an attempt to force them to rescue what otherwise might be a doomed effort to elect all 249 members of the Wolesi Jirga, or "House of the People," the lower house of the Afghan parliament. The upper chamber, the Meshrano Jirga, or "House of the Elders," is largely appointed by the president.

"If they stage this on their own, it will be an unmitigated disaster," said a Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record. "They think we (the international community) can't afford another disaster. So this is pure Afghan bluff."

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, said the U.S. was "making clear the need to ensure our resources are part of a process that takes into account the need for key reforms."

Dawood Ali Najafi, the deputy director of the Independent Election Commission, said in Kabul that the commission, handpicked by Karzai, is "still determined to hold the parliamentarian elections."

He said the elections would cost $120 million, of which $70 million could be paid out of funds held by the United Nations that were left over from August's presidential election. He appealed for $50 million more from the U.N.

A U.N. official confirmed that it's holding $70 million and that the Afghan election commission has submitted a formal request for the additional money.

According to the U.N. official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to speak publicly, one fundamental reform that's necessary in order to garner international financial support is replacing the leadership of the election commission, which skeptical Afghans call the "non-Independent Election Commission" for its subservience to Karzai. That almost certainly would include commission Chairman Dr. Azizullah Lodin and Najafi.

The outgoing U.N. special representative in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday that the election commission could delay the election within the limits of the Afghan Constitution.

"The electoral law gives the IEC the right to postpone elections on the basis of security, financial or technical considerations," Eide said. "Should Afghan authorities make use of this provision, then elections could be held later in the year in a way that still respects the Afghan legal framework."

If the commission proceeds on the present schedule, it will begin registering candidates on Jan. 16 and voters on Feb. 20.

(Day reports for The (Macon, Ga.) Telegraph.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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