- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 23, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s president has taken control of a formerly independent body that monitors election fraud, raising concern Tuesday that he’s reneging on promises to clean up corruption and cronyism — a pillar of the Obama administration’s plan to erode support for the Taliban.

President Hamid Karzai signed a decree last week giving him the power to appoint all members of the Electoral Complaints Commission, a group previously dominated by U.N. appointees that uncovered massive fraud on behalf of Mr. Karzai in last year’s presidential election.

The decree, which was made public Monday, suggests that Mr. Karzai wants to tighten control of the electoral process ahead of parliamentary balloting next September. The election was due in May but was postponed because foreign donors would not help pay for it without reforms.

“This is bad news for democracy,” said Gerard Russell, a former U.N. political adviser who resigned over disputes surrounding the August presidential election. “Basically, if President Karzai wishes it, this could prevent free elections ever being held in Afghanistan.”

Western diplomats based in Kabul expressed similar concerns but would not allow their names to be published because they were not authorized to speak about the issue to the media.

Following the fraud-marred August elections, the United States and other international partners pressed Mr. Karzai into promising to root out corruption and institute electoral reforms.

The chaotic balloting exposed the corruption underlying Afghan politics, prompting critics in the United States and other NATO countries to question whether Mr. Karzai could be a reliable partner in the fight against the Taliban. Government corruption is often cited as a major reason many Afghans have turned to the Taliban.

Mr. Karzai has taken some steps toward combating corruption, including requiring that all senior government officials register their assets, but diplomats fear the election law amendment represents a step backward.

The amendment gives the president the authority to appoint all five members of the complaints commission in consultation with parliamentary leaders and the head of the Supreme Court, according to a copy of the decree obtained by the Associated Press.

Previously, the United Nations appointed the chairman and two other commissioners. The Afghan human rights commission and the Supreme Court named one commissioner each.

A Karzai spokesman said the changes were made because foreigners had too much control over the last election.

“The international members had large salaries and didn’t care about Afghanistan’s national interest,” Syamak Herawi, the Karzai aide, said. “Now there won’t be any interference. The foreigners can be observers.”

Mr. Herawi said the commission still will be independent because Mr. Karzai must consult with others.

The top U.N. official in Afghanistan, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, met with Mr. Karzai earlier in the month and tried to persuade him to leave the U.N. appointees in place, according to three Western diplomats familiar with the discussions. They spoke anonymously because the conversations were meant to be private.

Mr. Eide then tried to get Mr. Karzai to agree to select commissioners seen as independent, to name them from a U.N.-approved list, or to agree to appoint at least two international commissioners, the diplomats said.

One diplomat said that negotiations were continuing in an attempt to get Mr. Karzai to appoint some Westerners or independent Afghans.

U.N. spokesman Dan McNorton declined to comment specifically on the appointments, saying that the world body is still studying the decree.

Afghanistan’s election commission declared Mr. Karzai the winner of the Aug. 20 balloting, but the separate complaints commission threw out nearly a third of his votes, forcing him into a runoff with his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah. It took a flurry of high-level diplomatic visits and intense international pressure for Mr. Karzai to accept that he had not won the election in the first round.

But the runoff eventually was called off after Mr. Abdullah dropped out, saying he was not confident the second vote would be any fairer than the first.

Diplomats are concerned that the complaints body, which is supposed to prevent political interference in elections, will be unable to fulfill that role if its members are also presidential appointees.

Grant Kippen, who ran the complaints commission last year, said the Karzai-appointed election body should have been “much more aggressive and responsible” in combating fraud.

“We did the job we were asked to do, but I don’t think others stepped up to the podium the way that they should have,” Mr. Kippen said.

An Afghan election watchdog group was carefully critical of the amendment.

“It’s ideal to have all institutions in charge of elections in Afghanistan nationalized,” said Nader Nadery, the head of the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan. “We are not fully confident that this institution would remain independent,” referring to the complaints commission.

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