World and Nation

Afghan officials spar over 2014 vote

KABUL, Afghanistan — Nearly two years before Afghanistan’s presidential election, a brewing dispute between President Hamid Karzai and Afghan lawmakers over the handling of voter fraud complaints is raising questions about whether a credible election can be held — and, by extension, future international support for the country’s financially ailing government.

U.S. and European diplomats are already trying to set the bar as low as possible for the 2014 election. U.S. officials talk of the need for a vote that is merely “acceptable,” purposefully avoiding the usual admonition of a “free-and-fair” election — a goal they say is too lofty given Afghanistan’s situation.

Yet U.N. officials and Western diplomats fear the coming vote might not meet even that low standard if Karzai and the Parliament cannot agree on new laws for the election, leaving it to be held under the same rules that yielded fraud and political crisis after the 2009 presidential vote.

A similar crisis in 2014 would probably prove far more dangerous. It would play out just as the U.S.-led combat mission was coming to an end, raising the specter of a charged political showdown among pro-government factions — many of them drawn along ethnic lines and some well-armed — at the precise moment when the Afghan state needed to present a united front against the Taliban.

The failure to hold a credible election would also further test the patience of the international community, which pays most of Afghanistan’s bills and is expected to cover the hundreds of millions of dollars it will cost to hold the election.

“If there’s a question mark over the election, it might affect future international support for the Afghan government,” said Nicholas Haysom, the deputy special representative at the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan.

Haysom and Western diplomats in Kabul said they are genuinely neutral on the current dispute, which appropriately enough is about whether foreign experts should help adjudicate accusations of electoral fraud. A measure approved recently in Parliament’s lower house mandates that two foreign experts chosen by the United Nations sit on the country’s five-person Election Complaints Commission, which is supposed to adjudicate fraud accusations.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, however, Karzai was blunt in his opposition to the presence of any foreigners on the complaints commission. “Their interference in the election process is a violation of Afghanistan’s national sovereignty.”

He then emphasized his point with a tart reference to the coming U.S. election: “Afghanistan is not interfering in their election, and we are hoping they don’t interfere in our election.”

Later, Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for the president, said Karzai would veto the measure if it passed the upper house with the provision for foreign experts. “We are capable of organizing free and fair elections,” he said in a brief telephone interview.