Afghanistan's government seeks more control over elections

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010

HERAT, AFGHANISTAN -- The Afghan government has drafted proposed changes to election law that would remove all three foreign members from the body that investigates fraud, limit the number of women in parliament and establish a host of new qualifications for candidates to run for office.

The thorough rewriting of the 2005 election law has raised the prospect that President Hamid Karzai intends to respond to the chaos of last year's presidential election by imposing changes that would give the government more control over the commission that documented the scope of electoral fraud. The five-member Electoral Complaints Commission -- including three international members appointed by the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan -- calculated that Karzai lost his first-round majority last August by the amount of vote-rigging and would need to face a run-off.

The proposed amendments are spelled out in a translated version of a draft law that was presented at a cabinet meeting earlier this month and obtained by The Washington Post. A spokesman for Karzai, Wahid Omar, said that amendments to the law were approved by the cabinet and sent to the Ministry of Justice but that he could not discuss the content of the changes until they were made public. Karzai could sign the decree as early as this week, while the parliament is on recess.

"People are very worried about this law," said one foreign official in Kabul who works on election issues. "It was so substantially rewritten, and nobody really knew about it."

Karzai has come under international pressure not to sign the decree and to allow for further modification, the officials said. The next round of elections, for parliament, is scheduled for September.

Although Karzai won in August by default when his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out before the run-off, the Karzai administration accused the commission of foreign meddling in an Afghan process and suggested that the results were a conspiracy against the government.

"I think the Afghan people didn't have a good experience with the last election with this commission, this complaints commission," said Azizullah Lodin, the president of the Afghan-run Independent Election Commission, who was accused of favoring Karzai during last year's vote.

According to the draft proposal, the new Electoral Complaints Commission would have no foreign members appointed by the United Nations. One member would be chosen by the Supreme Court, two by the parliament, one by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and one by the president.

In addition to changing the commission, the draft proposes limiting the number of female members in the lower house of the legislature, known as the Wolesi Jirga, to a maximum of two per each of the country's 34 provinces. The current law stipulates that the number of female representatives must be at least twice the number of provinces. While there is some dispute about the interpretation of this amendment, one international official in Kabul said it would "substantially reduce" the number of women in the 249-member lower house of parliament.

The draft also proposes a series of requirements to run for president, including having a bachelor's degree and a "good reputation" and being a "wise and brave person" who has not been "affected by psychic diseases." Presidential candidates would also have to deposit 5 million afghanis (about $100,000), which would be refunded only if the candidate wins or receives at least 20 percent of the vote. Of the 32 presidential candidates listed by the election commission in the final results of last year's vote, only two cleared this threshold.

"It seems quite discriminatory," Hakim said. "It would be a good opportunity for warlords and drug lords and mafia to be the most likely candidates."

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