Afghan parliament rejects Karzai takeover of vote panel

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 31, 2010 

KABUL — In another pointed challenge to President Hamid Karzai, Afghan lawmakers Wednesday overwhelmingly rejected his attempts to take control of the independent election panel that uncovered widespread fraud in last year's presidential vote.

Six weeks after Karzai issued a controversial decree giving himself complete power to choose all five members of the nation's Electoral Complaints Commission, Afghanistan's lower house sought to strip the president of his new powers.

Palace officials said Karzai was infuriated by the legislative rebuff and viewed the vote as illegal.

"He's definitely going to fight for it," said one Karzai adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the president's reaction more candidly. "He is very firm on this."

The political showdown is the latest clash between an increasingly combative Afghan legislature and Karzai.

"The Parliament had to stand up for itself on this question: the presidential decree would have been fatal for the credibility of the election," said Gerard Russell, a former British diplomat in Kabul who's now a research fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

"Afghans should oversee their own elections, but the parliament is right to decide that one person cannot appoint the entirety of both electoral bodies," Russell said.

Karzai sparked the political dispute in February when he issued a surprise presidential degree that stripped the United Nations of majority control of the independent elections commission.

Critics saw the move as political payback after the commission forced Karzai into a runoff election by uncovering outcome-changing fraud in the vote.

Obama administration officials were reportedly so incensed by Karzai's action that they temporarily shelved plans for him to visit Washington.

In an attempt to quell international criticism, Karzai agreed to give the U.N. the right to recommend two of the five members. That move failed to assuage lawmakers, however.

"We still need foreigners to have independent elections," said Sultan Mohammed Awrang, an Afghan lawmaker who voted to strip Karzai of the political power. "It wasn't in our national interest."

The vote created considerable legal confusion.

Karzai aides contend that the legislature has no right to change election laws when its members are facing an upcoming election. Some legal experts also said the action would have to be endorsed by the Afghan senate before it could become law.

Whatever the case, Wednesday's vote was the latest move by the parliament to challenge Karzai.

Since Karzai was sworn in last fall for his second five-year term, lawmakers have twice prevented the president from forming a full cabinet by rejecting key nominees.

"We are maybe in a position where the electoral law is being used as a tool to play out bigger picture politics in Afghanistan," said Peter Lepsch, the former chief legal officer for the ECC who now serves in Afghanistan as chief of party for Democracy International, a U.S.-based elections monitoring and consulting firm.

(McClatchy special correspondent Noruddin Bakhshi contributed to this report from Kabul.)

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