Karzai government rewrites key Afghan election law

Changes let him handpick vote monitors

US soldiers watched a nearby exchange of fire from the roof of an Army outpost in the Badula Qulp area of Helmand province. US soldiers watched a nearby exchange of fire from the roof of an Army outpost in the Badula Qulp area of Helmand province. (Pier Paolo Cito/ Associated Press)
By Alissa J. Rubin
New York Times / February 24, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan - To the dismay of his political opponents and many of his international backers, President Hamid Karzai has moved to ensure that he can handpick members of an electoral monitoring commission, removing significant United Nations oversight of future elections.

Using a loophole in the Afghan Constitution, the Karzai government unilaterally rewrote the election law, and the president put it into effect by a legislative decree on Feb. 13.

Under the new version, the five members of the Election Complaint Commission, created to oversee voting irregularities, will now be chosen by the president after consultation with the parliamentary leadership.

Previously, three of the seats were held by foreigners appointed by the United Nations. The other two members were Afghans.

The Election Complaint Commission was the oversight body that documented widespread irregularities in the presidential elections last August, ruling that at least 1 million votes cast for Karzai were suspect and forcing him into a runoff.

Karzai’s opponents denounced the new decree, saying the move threatens the stability of the Afghan state. They predicted that without an impartial complaint commission, elections will lead to a Parliament whose members are indebted to Karzai or others in his government. Parliamentary elections are expected to be held this summer.

“This is really a critical moment in the run-up to the parliamentary elections,’’ said Abdullah Abdullah, who was Karzai’s main opponent in last year’s presidential election. “There has to be a fair way for the people to participate in the elections.’’

Even after the Election Complaint Commission forced the runoff last fall, Abdullah withdrew, saying he could not get a fair vote. Karzai was then pronounced president by another election body, the Independent Election Commission, whose members the president had appointed.

“You cannot live without an independent, impartial electoral body in the hope that democracy will take root,’’ Abdullah added.

Karzai’s government was unabashed about the new law.

“In order to make these truly national commissions, this decree has excluded the foreign members,’’ said Ahmad Zia Seyamak Herawi, a deputy spokesman for Karzai.

“There can be Afghan and international monitoring bodies to monitor the elections of Afghanistan, but we are not going to allow the foreigners with high salaries to be involved in our elections,’’ Herawi said.

“As they are not Afghans, they won’t care about Afghanistan’s national interest, and they are creating problems for us.’’

The change in the law was part of “the process of Afghanization,’’ Herawi said. The term has been coined by American and other Western diplomats to describe the process of Afghans taking responsibility for their own governing and security.

Afghans have begun to use it, too, to burnish their bona fides as patriots intent on promoting their countrymen.

Indeed, the argument seemed to take the wind out of some criticism of the government’s move, as some Afghans did not want to be overly critical of efforts to give Afghans the powerful roles previously filled by Westerners.

Potential candidates in the parliamentary elections found the new law discouraging. “His aim is to engineer a Parliament that will be his ‘yes’ men,’’ said Saleh Registani, a former member of Parliament who was hoping to run again this year.

The loophole Karzai took advantage of in revising the election law was an apparent contradiction between two provisions in the Afghan Constitution.

Article 79 states that when the Parliament is in recess, the president has the right to enact emergency legislative decrees, which have the force of law, but that when the Parliament returns, it has 30 days to reject them.

However, another provision, Article 109, states that “proposals for amending elections law shall not be included in the work agenda of the National Assembly during the last year of the legislative term.’’ That means that the one kind of decree Parliament cannot discuss in the last year of its term is one that changes electoral laws.

While some legislative scholars say that the prohibition on discussing an electoral law would not include a straight up-or-down vote on the president’s decree, it seemed unlikely that such a reading would gain ground.

Meanwhile yesterday, a bicycle rigged as a bomb exploded in a bazaar in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, killing seven people and wounding 14.

The explosion in the center of the city was a terrifying reminder of the continuing vulnerability of civilians in Helmand as American, Afghan, and British soldiers waged sporadic gun battles on the 11th day of an offensive against the Taliban stronghold in Marja, a town a few miles away.