Afghan elections delayed, but even later date may come too soon

The decision to postpone Afghan elections until September violates the Constitution. But observers agree that extra time – even more than four months – is needed to erect safeguards against fraud.

By , Staff Writer

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    In this Aug. 20, 2009 file photo, Election official Mohammad Hasan Haidari (l.) prepares ballots for members of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police at a polling place in the village of Dahaneh, Afghanistan.
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The Afghan government has postponed upcoming parliamentary elections, but doubts are already surfacing as to whether the later date will be possible either.

The country’s Constitution calls for the vote to be held in May. But on Sunday, citing a shortage of funds and the challenge of implementing safeguards against fraud, the Independent Election Commission said the polls would be held Sept. 18.

Afghanistan postponed the presidential election last year as well, a move that provoked constitutional concerns in parliament and ultimately did not prevent the vote from turning into a fraud-filled fiasco.

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New date raises new concerns

Parliamentarians, who are currently on a recess, are already expressing concerns about fraud and timing. The new date falls a week after the end of Ramadan, a Muslim month of daytime fasting and diminished activity. Most of the campaign period – a time when Afghan politicians often lure crowds to rallies with food – would be effected.

“That’s a fasting month. Nobody will be willing to come out for a campaign: People will be hungry, thirsty, it will be hot weather,” says Khalid Pashtoon, a member of parliament from Kandahar Province and an ally of President Hamid Karzai.

Mr. Pashtoon says the election should be pushed back until October. “We were not happy for the postponement because it was strictly against the Constitution. But due to the current circumstances it was not possible to go forward. If they were to go forward with it, it would be a great catastrophe.”

He said he's worried that there isn't enough time to tackle the problem of fraudulent registration cards, which continue to circulate widely in the south after they were carelessly distributed before last year’s presidential election. The problem could be seen clearly, he says, from provincial elections last year in which candidates in parts of the south received more votes than the existing population.

An international sigh of relief

Aware of these challenges, international backers of the Afghan government are mostly relieved by the postponement. Some had been pushing for the elections to be held in 2011, given the influx of US troops and combat operations this year.

The Afghan Constitution specifies that elections for MPs must be held 30 to 60 days before their terms in office expire. Postponing the vote, and allowing legislators to overstay their terms, would erode the idea that their legitimacy is grounded in shared rules and timely voter input.

Still, even those committed to seeing stronger rule of law in Afghanistan concede that a delay was necessary.

“The elections need to be delayed. There’s no way they could pull them off in May in any way that would be significantly improved [over] last year’s process. They are just not ready, the financing is not there, the logistics are not set up, they have not planned for security,” says John Dempsey, a rule-of-law adviser with the United States Institute for Peace in Kabul.

But, he adds, the postponement “still is clearly against what the Constitution requires, which is problematic because the Constitution shouldn’t be a best effort document.

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