With New Law, Afghanistan Moves Closer to an Election

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- With Afghanistan's financial future riding on next year's presidential election, President Hamid Karzai signed a new election law on Wednesday, at least temporarily easing concerns that the vote could be significantly delayed or put off indefinitely.

Up until the end of last week, there were widespread concerns among American and European diplomats, whose countries bankroll the Afghan government and security forces, that a pair of election laws crucial to next year's vote would not be passed before Parliament adjourned for the summer. That would have made the current timetable, which calls for an election in April, nearly impossible to meet.

Instead, Parliament passed both laws in the past few days. Mr. Karzai on Wednesday signed the one widely expected to be the most contentious for him: it lays out the composition and rules for Afghanistan's election commission and a separate commission to adjudicate complaints about voter fraud and other irregularities. Afghan and Western officials said they expected second law, which governs how the vote will be held, to be signed soon enough to avoid scheduling problems.

A successful election is seen as vital to Afghanistan's stability, and American and European diplomats have warned that billions of dollars in aid will not materialize unless the vote is credible. A flawed vote could also make it difficult for the United States and its allies to continue training and financing the Afghan army and police after the NATO combat mission here ends next year, they said.

At the same time, Afghanistan's backers have made clear that vote is an Afghan affair, and they have set a low bar for credibility. The benchmark most often cited is an election "acceptable" to the Afghan people – that is, a vote that does not result in a crisis just as the American-led coalition is wrapping up its operations.

Yet squabbling over the election laws between Mr. Karzai and his political opponents during the past eight months had raised early doubts that Afghanistan could meet even that low standard.

Wednesday's signing of the so-called structural law appeared to have helped assuage those concerns, offering a bright spot in the often grim assessments of the prospects for Afghan democracy in the coming years.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, who heads the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an independent watchdog group, said the signing of the so-called structural law "is an encouraging development. It comes late, but finally, despite all the opposition to this law from the government."

"We were concerned this would not come into effect," he added. "Now the challenge is to make sure this law gets properly implemented."

One Western diplomat remarked that it was "amazing – for once, the cynics around here were proven wrong."

The complaints commission, in particular, had been a source of serious dispute that at one point threatened to scuttle the new law. That would have left Afghanistan holding the vote under the same presidential decrees used to govern the 2009 presidential election, which was marred by widespread fraud and set off months of political crisis.

Mr. Karzai did not want the complaints commission at all, viewing it as the source his problems in 2009, when it disqualified hundreds of thousands of votes, forcing him into a runoff. But the opposition insisted the commission remain in place, and it also wanted at least two of its five members be foreigners appointed by the United Nations.

An earlier draft of the election law was vetoed by Mr. Karzai because of the dispute over the complaints commission.

But, as pressure from the United States and Europe mounted in recent months, a compromise was struck: the commission would be written into the law, but it would include only Afghans. It could, however, hire foreign technical experts to assist the commissioners.

At the same time Mr. Karzai's office announced that the president had signed the law, it also said a committee made up of lawmakers, human rights activists and others was being convened to name members of the election and complaints commission.

The law "corresponds with what the international community said was important," said Nicholas Haysom, a senior United Nations official in Afghanistan. "They had asked for the two laws to be passed as part of the government's commitments" in exchange for billions in aid over the coming years.

But, he cautioned: "As with many of things, this is a hurdle in a race which consists of lots of hurdles."

Apart from selecting members of the election and complaints commissions, the next major step is the nominations of candidates, who are supposed to begin registering in September. There are no clear front-runners going in, and Mr. Karzai has not signaled whom, if anyone, he might throw his support behind, despite persistent rumors that the hopefuls include his brother Qayum.

Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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