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Karzai casts doubt over Afghan election schedule

Globe and Mail Update

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Hamid Karzai cast doubt over Afghanistan's election schedule by issuing a presidential decree today asking local authorities to respect the constitution, which some interpreted as a veiled request for a spring vote.

Voting was set for August 20, but Mr. Karzai's decree implied the date should be moved ahead to March or April – a switch that would allow him to maintain power during the election period, a bit of leverage that observers say would be crucial if the unpopular leader wants to keep his job.

The decree instructs the Independent Election Commission to follow the constitutional rules, including article 61, which sets the expiry date of the presidential term as the first day of Jawza on the Afghan calendar, or May 22. Elections are required 30 to 60 days before the term expires.

The IEC has already declared that timetable impractical, and invoked emergency provisions that allow for a delayed election. This has prompted heated debate in Kabul about whether Mr. Karzai should be allowed to extend his stay in office through the summer, or whether the country needs an interim leader.

Mr. Karzai has been holding intense negotiations with political figures in an attempt to keep control of his administration during the voting, which Western officials say would give him the advantage of commanding appointees such as police chiefs, governors, and other officials who might help him win the election.

Today's decree mentions these talks, saying it was "based on the broad consultations with political and jihadi figures, scholars, lawyers and government officials."

In Kandahar, however, the top Canadian commander said the decree took him by surprise.

"We do need more information," Brigadier-General Jon Vance said. "I'm seeing this in the press, just like you are."

The commander said he hasn't ruled out ordering reinforcements from Canada this spring to help with the extra security needs of a spring election.

"If the election does come in April and the security situation is such that it demands I look more closely at force levels here, then I certainly will," he said. "And I would consult with my superiors to see if that's something we can do. It's in the realm of the possible, that's for sure."

While the Canadian commander said he could quickly arrange extra forces for a hasty vote, Western officials in Kabul said other logistics are simply not feasible that quickly. Printing millions of ballots will require at least 30 days, officials said, and the government has yet to raise the estimated $220-million in election costs from international donors.

Some viewed the president's move as posturing. The decree itself does not call for a spring election, only for the IEC to obey the constitution. Since it's widely known that the IEC cannot practically organize an early election, observers say, Mr. Karzai may be positioning himself as the victim of circumstances as he fends off calls for an interim leader when his term expires.

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