Presidential elections considered crucial to Afghanistan's security and stability will be held on schedule in April 2014, the country's election commission announced on Wednesday.
The decision eased concerns that President Hamid Karzai would seek to delay the election despite his repeated assurances that he would not. Karzai is not allowed to run for a third term and has said he will not stay on after his current five-year mandate ends. The previous presidential elections, held in late 2009, were marred by allegations of widespread fraud.
"I think it is significant that they announced the 5th of April, 2014 as the date for the presidential elections in accordance with the constitution," European Union ambassador Vygaudas Usackas said. "It is a demonstration that the Afghan authorities are taking seriously their commitment with regard to their own people and the international community."
With $13 million in funds pledged this year to help the Afghans prepare for the elections, the EU is the largest contributor in the effort to organize the polls. Fair and free elections are also a key condition for the delivery of more than $16 billion in aid pledged during an international donor conference held in Tokyo last May.
The presidential vote also coincides with the withdrawal of tens of thousands of foreign combat troops, most of whom will be gone by the end of 2014.
Independent Election Commission chief Fazel Ahmad Manawi said that the country's provincial elections, originally to be held in mid-2013, will also held on the same date. Parliamentary elections are to be held in 2015.
The decision to hold the two elections simultaneously was taken for cost reasons and was not political, Manawi said. He added that holding the two elections together will cost an estimated $350 million, far less than it would cost to hold them separately. The costs will be covered mostly by foreign donors, he said.
"The IEC believes that the announcement of the 2013 and 2014 election calendar well in advance will pave the way for extensive and widespread participation of both the candidates and voters," Manawi said.
The last presidential elections were marred by allegations of massive fraud and vote rigging. More than one million of the 5.5 million votes cast were ruled invalid, while only 33 percent of the country's voters turned out for the poll.
Many observers — both Western and Afghan — were worried Karzai wants to remain in power or appoint a proxy from his family circle to be a candidate in the elections. His family is thought to have profited from his position as president although allegations against them have never been proven.
Opposition politicians said they were happy that an election date was set, but had hoped it would be later in the month — which they said the constitution allows. They said they were worried that Afghanistan's long winter, often marked by heavy snowfalls, could hamper some voters and the campaign.
"The decision which has been made by the IEC is according to the constitution but there is one problem. The campaign period is two months before the elections and it will be winter, so there will not be access to many parts of the country during that period," said Fazel Sangcharaki, a spokesman for the opposition National Front. Its leader, Abdullah Abdullah, was Karzai's main rival in the last elections.
Another uncertainty will be the state of the war against the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Conflict prevented a turnout in many parts of Afghanistan during the last elections.
Insurgents have been battling NATO and Afghan troops for 11 years and still control parts of the country's east and south. That violence has not abated.
Seventeen Afghan civilians were killed on Wednesday — 11 of them in two separate incidents involving roadside bombs in the Musa Qala district of southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, the provincial governor's office said in a statement.
Another roadside bomb in the Mariof district of Kandahar province killed six people traveling in a car, said local government spokesman Javeed Faisal.
Patrick Quinn contributed to this report from Kabul.