Karzai changes law to remove foreign observers from voting fraud watchdog

 

KABUL – Afghan President Hamid Karzai has signed into law changes that remove foreign observers from the electoral watchdog charged with reviewing voting fraud, his office said yesterday.

The move could put Mr Karzai in conflict with western donors who have said they will not fund September 18th parliamentary elections without electoral reforms, following a 2009 presidential election beset by massive fraud. The five-member Electoral Complaints Commission previously had three members appointed by the United Nations, and last year nullified one-third of Mr Karzai’s votes as fraudulent.

Free and fair elections are part of a western strategy to return the nation to stability, while a Nato-led military operation battles a renewed Taliban insurgency with the aim of returning all of Afghanistan to the Karzai-led government.

“The Afghan government for long has wanted to ‘Afghanise’ the electoral process and, 10 days ago, the cabinet ratified the amendment and the president endorsed it,” Karzai spokesman Siamak Herawi said. He said parliament could not overturn the law, since Mr Karzai had signed it into effect when the legislature was in recess.

The change raises the prospect of criticism that the overall elections commission, appointed by Mr Karzai, would not be seen as independent.

Opponents criticised the national elections body for failing to halt last years fraud. The UN-backed watchdog threw out nearly one-third of Mr Karzai’s votes, lowering his total below the 50 per cent required to avoid a run-off.

Mr Karzai was declared the winner after his main opponent pulled out before a planned second round. Donor nations provided security and more than $230 million dollars for the poll last year. The UN is holding tens of millions of dollars earmarked for this year’s vote, with diplomats saying they will not release the money without reforms.

“It is vital that the Afghan government learns the lessons from the 2009 elections as it works with the international community to prepare the 2010 parliamentary elections,” a British foreign office spokesperson said on condition of anonymity.

The US said the composition of the electoral watchdog was “ultimately an issue for the Afghan government and people to determine”, a spokesperson for the US embassy in Kabul said.

“We support electoral institutions and reforms that provide the Afghan people with a system that ensures elections will be fair, credible, transparent, and respectful of human rights,” he said.

Mr Karzai acknowledged some fraud at last year’s poll, but said its extent had been exaggerated by western media.

Meanwhile, the number of US troops killed in Afghanistan has reached 1,000, according to an independent website. The Pentagon disputed this, saying 916 had died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan combined since late 2001 when the Taliban fell.

“It’s significantly less than 1,000 in Afghanistan,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman when asked to comment on the latest death toll provided by the website www.icasualties.org, which tracks casualties.