Relief as Afghan elections postponed

Officially, Kabul needs more cash from the international community; unofficially, the US and EU want reforms to prevent fraud.

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LONDON // Western governments breathed an audible sigh of relief yesterday after Afghanistan announced that it was postponing parliamentary elections due to be held in May. The country's independent election commission said that, instead of May 22, voting would not now take place until September 18.

Officially, the reason given for the delay is the cash-strapped authorities in Kabul need to garner an extra US$50 million (Dh184m) from the international community to stage the elections properly. Unofficially, the reason seems to be the pressure put on by the United States and European Union who felt that a spring election would not give time to introduce reforms that would avoid a repeat of the widespread fraud reported in last August's presidential election.

"The delay has brought great relief all round," a senior diplomat in London said yesterday. "The delay will allow extra [US and European] troops to improve the security situation in the south while reforms to the voting system will, hopefully, add to legitimacy of the results. "President [Hamid] Karzai would have come under pressure for postponement at the London conference on Afghanistan later this week.

He will still be expected to lay out in specific detail how and when reforms to the voting system will be implemented." The election commission said it was $50m short of the $120m needed to stage the elections. The cash is expected to be made available through the United Nations, but only when reforms have been made. Kai Eide, the chief UN envoy in Afghanistan, said this month Afghan law provided for a delay in voting, although Mr Karzai had said he wanted the original date to be met.

In a statement yesterday, the UN said the postponement would allow time to prepare for the vote and to improve the electoral process based on lessons learnt from past votes. "This would have been extremely difficult to do by the original date," it added. William Crosbie, Canada's ambassador in Kabul, said it was essential to overcome the deficiencies in the system that the presidential election had exposed.

"We encourage the Afghan government and the independent election commission to set the necessary conditions for parliamentary elections that are credible, secure and inclusive." The US Embassy said in a statement it respected the decision and would continue to work with the Afghan government "to pursue election reform for the upcoming parliamentary elections and for the long term". Zekriya Barakzai, a member of the commission, conceded that the delay was not only caused by "problems and constraints to get the proper budget" but also security concerns, logistical obstacles and the need to improve procedures.

Western critics, particularly the United States, have been warning for some time that support for Afghanistan could be further eroded if the parliamentary elections took place without major reforms. The fiasco surrounding the presidential elections caused deep unease in the West and resulted in UN-backed investigators rejecting more than a million ballots, nearly one-third of the votes cast. One of the changes that is likely to be demanded at this week's conference is the replacement of Azizullah Ludinas, the head of the election commission. His term expired on Saturday and he is considered too close an ally of Mr Karzai.

Until recently, the Afghan parliament has not played an important role in the running of the country. Now, however, MPs are flexing their political muscles and have twice rejected many of the president's nominations for his new cabinet.