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Long-Delayed Afghan Vote Is Set for Sept.

One House of Parliament Will Remain Incomplete

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page A11

KABUL, Afghanistan, March 20 -- Afghanistan's first fully free parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for last year but repeatedly pushed back for logistical and security reasons, will be held Sept. 18, officials announced Sunday.

Elections for the country's 34 provincial councils will also be conducted that day. Voting for hundreds of district councils and a portion of the seats in the upper house of parliament will be postponed until district boundary lines can be set.

A worker pushes a wheelbarrow into the main hall of the old Afghan parliament building, under reconstruction in Kabul. Afghanistan will hold its delayed parliamentary elections on Sept. 18. (Tomas Munita -- AP)

The announcement was made at a news conference Sunday by Besmillah Besmil, chairman of the Joint Electoral Management Body, an independent group consisting of nine Afghans and four foreign members that is charged with administering the elections. It follows statements by President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit to Kabul last week confirming the delay.

At an international conference in Bonn in late 2001, Afghanistan's interim government agreed to prepare for free and fair elections in 2004. But the presidential elections, which had been scheduled for June, were pushed back to October, and the parliamentary elections were delayed until this spring.

Some of Karzai's rivals have accused him of stalling the parliamentary vote to strengthen the power of the presidency.

At the news conference, Besmil said the delay was caused solely by the practical difficulties of organizing the elections. He pointed out that hundreds of thousands of new voters would have to be registered and that 34 different ballots, each potentially listing hundreds of candidates, would have to be printed and distributed.

"It's the wish and will of our people to have their voice heard on the future of their country," Besmil said.

Mid-September was widely considered the latest possible date that elections could be held this year before Afghanistan's traditionally harsh winter weather caused further delays. Conducting district council elections simultaneously would have posed an even greater challenge -- particularly given the lack of census data for drawing up district boundary lines.

Postponement of the district council elections will leave the 102-member upper house of the parliament incomplete. According to Afghanistan's constitution, the district councils of each of the 34 provinces must choose a provincial representative to the upper house. Provincial councils select another 34 representatives to the upper house, while the president also appoints 34.

Several days ago, the Supreme Court indicated that it would support a stopgap solution under which the president would appoint 17 members to the upper house, preserving a 2-to-1 ratio between its elected and appointed members. The upper house has less power than the 249-seat lower house.

The president and his cabinet must still make several other important decisions -- including whether to change the current voting system to one more favorable to political parties, whether to provide the nomadic Kuchi tribes with separate representation, and whether to permit hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and Iran to vote.

It is estimated that allowing refugees to vote would add $30 million to the roughly $148 million that the electoral body has said it will need from donor countries to conduct the parliamentary elections.

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