KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN Afghanistan's elections will probably go ahead as scheduled in August, sources say, despite a presidential order that shocked many observers by casting doubt over the timing of the vote.
Hamid Karzai kicked up a political storm over the weekend by instructing the Afghan Independent Election Commission to follow constitutional rules that would require a vote in March or April.
But the mood was calm Sunday inside the Kabul headquarters of the IEC, according to two Western officials who sat down with local authorities to consider the rambling language and opaque meanings of the decree Mr. Karzai signed Saturday.
Critics denounced the decree as blatant opportunism by the unpopular leader: A snap election would hamstring other contenders, or – more likely – the impossible logistics of early voting would force the international community or Afghan bureaucrats to explain why that particular constitutional rule cannot be followed for the upcoming vote, allowing Mr. Karzai to paint himself as the sole defender of the constitution.
The latter scenario appeared to be playing out yesterday as the United States issued a statement in favour of August elections, and officials said they expect a similar decision when the IEC issues a formal response to Mr. Karzai's decree within the next two weeks.
“There's no plan for an early election,” a Western official said last night.
The presidential decree did not ask for an early vote, and such a decision would have been beyond Mr. Karzai's powers. But with his order to obey Article 61 of the constitution, which requires a vote 30 to 60 days before his five-year mandate expires on May 22, the President was effectively pushing for a drastically accelerated process.
The IEC has already invoked emergency provisions allowing for a delayed vote, saying it's necessary to fulfill a more important part of the constitution, Article 33, which protects the universality of elections.
Western officials say a rushed vote would lack the necessary time for fundraising, training, security planning, and other logistics, all of which could threaten the election's universality if not conducted properly. Simply printing all the ballots will require at least 30 days, and no donors have paid the estimated $220-million cost of running the elections.
Mr. Karzai is believed to be aware that a spring election isn't feasible, but observers say he needs to shore up his credibility on constitutional issues so he himself can ask for a major exception to the rules – an extension of his term in office.
Pressure has been mounting on Mr. Karzai to step aside on May 22 and allow an interim leader to take control during the election period – and possibly until the winner is sworn into office at the end of the year.
“We need an interim president to run the elections,” said Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.
“The parliament and politicians are saying Karzai's time is finished, so suddenly he's using these tactics because he doesn't want to leave his job.”
Some observers argue that it doesn't matter whether Mr. Karzai holds office through the election period as he has already installed many of his loyalists in key posts throughout the country. But others say he's eager to keep control of his appointed governors, police chiefs, district leaders and other officials during the uncertainty ahead.
“One of the reasons he is fighting so hard behind the scenes to keep his executive powers during the interim period is that he knows without it he will have no ability to bring the full weight of the presidency to bear on his re-election campaign,” said a well-informed Western official in Kabul. “He can only implement his re-election strategy by keeping all his current presidential powers intact.”
The constitution does not set out a mechanism for extending presidents' terms, and neither does it suggest an authority that might make such a decision. Afghanistan's Supreme Court has already declined to rule on the issue, which has become the subject of intense haggling among power brokers in the capital.
Outside of Kabul, local politicians say they're concerned the vote will lack legitimacy because of security problems and voters' disenchantment.
“There is no chance the election will be successful in the rural areas, and only a small chance in the urban areas,” said Haji Aga Lalai, a member of Kandahar's provincial council.
Another member of the council, Haji Mohammed Qassam, said people have grown cynical about the manoeuvring in the capital.
“Most people don't want to take part in the election; they've lost interest,” he said.
One demographic, however, has shown surprising interest in registering to vote. A Taliban leader from Helmand province, who calls himself Abit Sahib, said by telephone that all his comrades are signing up.
“I took a voter-registration card, and I told all my fighters to get voter registration,” the commander said. “Even the big commanders have voter cards. We will decide later if we will vote or not. It depends on our leaders, they will decide for us.”