U.N. pushes risky plan to resolve Afghan election impasse

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 14, 2011 

KABUL, Afghanistan — The United Nations is quietly pushing a plan aimed at healing a rupture between President Hamid Karzai and the opposition-dominated parliament that threatens to ignite a full-blown constitutional crisis, two international officials said.

The proposal, however, risks inflaming the feud and triggering charges of foreign interference with the country's electoral commission, which is supposed to be independent but has had its credibility battered by two successive fraud-marred national elections.

The U.N. is pressing the commission to overturn for alleged fraud the results of 17 of last year's 249 races for parliament's lower house, the officials said on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The number is far fewer than the 62 contests that Karzai wanted reversed, but stops short of granting opposition lawmakers' calls for no changes at all.

"Once the IEC (Independent Election Commission) makes its announcement, the entire international community will be in lockstep supporting the IEC decision," one official said.

The United States will support whatever the IEC rules, but isn't backing the U.N. plan, said a senior U.S. official also requested anonymity to discuss the issue.

The results of the elections, held last Aug.18, have been a point of contention since they were announced in December, weeks after the vote amid evidence of widespread fraud. Karzai opponents did well, defeating several of the president's allies, but Karzai supporters quickly went on the attack, accusing the opposition of fraud.

In December, Karzai ordered the creation of a special tribunal to sort out the fraud allegations, a step the IEC, opposition lawmakers and the international community dismissed as illegal and an attempt by Karzai to insert more of his supporters into the lower house. During the impasse, parliament has refused to pass legislation or approve Cabinet appointments, has brought impeachment proceedings against six Supreme Court justices and threatened to impeach Karzai, who has been forced to rule by decree.

In June, the tribunal ruled that 62 contests should be reversed, but IEC chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi refused to recognize the tribunal's authority and last week Karzai dissolved it.

The U.N. plan is intended to resolve the crisis once and for all for fear it will fuel instability as the U.S. draws down forces and security responsibilities gradually are shifted to Karzai's government, a process due to be completed by the end of 2014.

A lingering crisis also would mar a December international conference set for Bonn, Germany, intended to showcase the Karzai government's ability to manage as U.S.-led forces depart and foreign aid diminishes.

The U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, urged IEC chairman Manawi to adopt the proposal during an Aug. 10 meeting with key foreign ambassadors, said the two international officials, who were briefed on the session.

Manawi "told the . . . ambassadors that he's looking at disqualifying five or six, and . . . de Mistura was the one putting pressure on him to go with 17," said one of the officials The second described the U.N.'s push for 17 as a "hard line."

The IEC is expected to decide on the dispute later this week.

Dan McNorton, a spokesman for de Mistura, declined to comment on the meeting.

But he added that, "It's essential that the Afghans themselves are able to ensure they reach a political solution to this institutional impasse and that must be underpinned by the constitution and democratic principles."

A request to interview Manawi went unanswered.

The meeting was held the same evening that Karzai dissolved the special tribunal and affirmed that the IEC as the country's top electoral authority, a step the IEC and foreign diplomats hailed as a breakthrough in the dispute.

But the proposed U.N. solution also could backfire. Opposition lawmakers are warning that they will call protests to blockade the presidential palace, raising the potential for violence, if any results are altered.

"We will not accept at any price any change in the membership of the parliament," said Sidiqa Mubarez, a lawmaker from eastern Wardak province. "The protests will move beyond the Parliament's walls into the streets and even to the palace."

Several of Karzai's leading opponents have thrown their support behind the opposition. They include former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who lost the fraud-mired 2010 presidential election, and Amrullah Saleh, who Karzai fired as head of the country's main intelligence service last year.

The deal could also undermine the IEC's credibility as an independent electoral body. It has already confirmed the results of last year's vote, and a change would indicate it had bowed to outside pressure.

Martine van Biljert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said some of Karzai's main opponents are trying to transform the parliamentary dispute into a wider protest movement against the unpopular Karzai government.

"They are trying to make this . . . about a government that's corrupt and a president who tramples the law," she said.

It remains unclear, however, if such a move would succeed. Most Afghans are more concerned with coping with the difficulties of daily life than joining protests, she said.

"To have sustained demonstrations that have an impact is even more difficult and you need to control them," she said. "Demonstrations that turn violent will actually discredit the opposition."

(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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