Afghan parliament's lower house rejects Karzai election proposals

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post staff writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

KABUL -- The lower house of the Afghan parliament on Wednesday resoundingly rejected President Hamid Karzai's bid to change the nation's elections law and to exert more control over the commission that investigates voting fraud.

The vote represented a sharp rebuke of Karzai's effort this year to change the law by presidential decree while parliament was on recess, and a show of force by a legislature that has become increasingly willing to resist rubber-stamping presidential proposals.

The decision comes after the parliament rejected many of Karzai's proposed cabinet nominees, creating an ongoing state of political limbo, and amid pressure on him by the United States to do more to fight pervasive corruption.

"This is a very important day for Afghanistan's democratic institutions," said Peter D. Lepsch, a senior legal adviser for Democracy International in Kabul. "The legislative branch has used its constitutional authority to stem presidential power. That's a big deal."

The vote by the lower house, known as the Wolesi Jirga, does not appear to mean the end of Karzai's proposal to change the elections law. Afghan and Western officials said that the upper house must also vote on the decree. With parliamentary elections scheduled for September, some officials suggested that delaying long enough might allow the new law to survive.

"I would consider what you have now is a half rejection," one Western official in Kabul said on the condition of anonymity because the official is not authorized to speak publicly. "It is a significant move that the Wolesi Jirga overwhelmingly rejected the decree, but it doesn't give any finality."

The most contentious proposed change in the elections law would allow Karzai to appoint three of five members of the Electoral Complaints Commission, the U.N.-led body that documented widespread fraud in last year's presidential election, much of it on Karzai's behalf, and became a target for his supporters. When Karzai initially signed the decree in February, it allowed him to appoint all five members of the commission, but under international pressure he compromised to allow the United Nations to appoint two foreign members.

This appointment proposal was a driving force for many lawmakers to vote against it by waving red cards in the air, according to Mirwais Yasini, the deputy speaker of the lower house.

"We had a very bad experience in the presidential election; it cannot be considered legal. The credibility of the current president is under question. Looking ahead, we have to have good transparency. We had to reject this law," he said.

The members present in the lower house -- about half the total -- overwhelmingly voted against the proposal.

Karzai's attempt to seize control of the complaints commission had political implications beyond Afghan elections. The move reportedly angered the White House enough to postpone a trip by Karzai to Washington, even though U.S. officials in Afghanistan initially seemed ambivalent about his proposed decree. Some U.S. officials viewed the parliamentary rejection Wednesday as a positive step, but confusion remained about which law would stand for the September elections.

"There is a lot of lack of clarity still," said the Western official in Kabul. "We have to prepare for all scenarios."

Amid the political wrangling, Afghans dealt with a fresh outburst of violence on Wednesday, when a bomb exploded in a marketplace in Helmand province, killing at least 13 people and wounding 45, Afghan officials said. The blast occurred in a crowded bazaar in the Nahr-e Saraj district, according to a provincial spokesman. Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak blamed the Taliban and said that such attacks continue to turn Afghans against the insurgents.

"This is the most cowardly act, to kill innocent people," he said. "When we're able to hold areas, a lot of people will be anti-Taliban."

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company