Photo Credit: The New York Times/ Mikhail Galustov

Hamid Karzai took an unprecedented step last week when he hosted several factional leaders and representatives of most of Afghanistan’s loyal political opposition groupings at the presidential palace for a three hour-long Afghan style heart-to-heart. All sides left the luncheon feeling cautiously optimistic that the country’s political elites – minus the armed opposition – can transcend real and imaginary hostility, and push for a fair and credible electoral process that would pave the way for a peaceful and legitimate transfer of power in 2014.

However, only days later, the new-found sense of optimism faced a major challenge when Independent Election Commission chief Fazl Ahmad Ma’nawi announced on Tuesday that, contrary to expectations, the cabinet of ministers has amended the draft election law and scrapped the Election Complaints Commission, giving the Supreme Court vast powers to set up an election court.

Talking to reporters in Kabul, Ma’nawi said “the Supreme Court has been assigned to form a new election court to follow up any complaints.” He announced that after three cabinet meetings, the draft law was now being forwarded to the Lower House of parliament for further deliberation. Other government sources have not confirmed the cabinet decision yet.

If confirmed, this may set the stage for a clash between the government and the legislature, which had previously endorsed the presence of two non-Afghan commissioners on the ECC. It will also raise tensions once again between opposition parties and the President.

Reacting to the news, a potential presidential candidate said “the cabinet tried to fix a problem by creating a bigger problem,” because the public has very low confidence in the court system, its electoral capacity and independent arbitration.

Members of the newly-formed Cooperation Council of Afghan Political Parties and Coalitions, an umbrella organization of 21 groups, took part in a brainstorming session with the president, his two deputies and factional leaders last Wednesday on the electoral process. The tone of the exchanges was described by one attendee as “respectfully firm and serious.”

The initiative came from the palace at a time when Afghanistan’s political transition is a focus of domestic and international attention, and coincides with the security transition from NATO forces to Afghans to be completed by the end of 2014.

Relations between the President’s inner circle and political opposition groups have either been non-existent or deeply strained since flawed and highly controversial elections were held for the presidency in 2009 and for parliament in 2010.

Not only did it result in a serious domestic trust deficit, but Afghanistan’s image was also tarnished as the international community doubted the ability of the Afghans to commit to democratic reforms, better governance and a serious effort to curb corruption.

Participants at the gathering assured Karzai “we are not your enemy.” They also urged him to leave office in 2014 with honor and a proud legacy. The President agreed and stressed that his intention is to leave power with a good name. He also promised, as he had on previous occasions, that he is committed to a healthy electoral process and wishes to relinquish power to a “qualified leader elected by the people, who can do better than I have.”

However, with less than two years left to elections, many legal, technical and administrative issues remain unresolved and contentious.

Speaking on behalf of the Cooperation Council, former foreign minister and 2009 presidential candidate, Dr. A. Abdullah, stressed on the necessity of holding proper elections as the country enters a critical transition period. He expressed the views of the opposition on the following issues:

  1. A need to revise the date set for presidential elections (April 5, 2014) not seen as conducive to easy voter access to polling stations and campaigning in hard-to-reach districts.
  2. Scrapping the old voter registration cards in favor of a new registry and id cards that would help reduce fraud and irregularities, as evidenced in the last two elections.
  3. Agreeing to opt for a proportional voting mechanism to replace the single non-transferable (SNTV) system that has proven to be fractious.
  4. Making every effort to improve overall security and electoral financial accountability.
  5. Urgently sending the draft election laws for parliamentary approval and promulgation.
  6. Selecting independent members of the election (IEC) and complaints commissions (ECC) according to established rules and procedures.

At the end Dr. Abdullah asked that the President prevent any illegal meddling in the process and assure that state resources will not be put at the disposal of favored candidates.

In response to the demands made by the Council, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayaf, head of the Itehad-e Islami faction, who yields influence in the Supreme Court, supported a free and fair process but, joined by Karzai, expressed reservations about changing the current SNTV system because Afghan society, in general, and polity, in particular, are not ready to make that leap.

Former Interior minister Yunus Qanooni, asked that the country envisage adopting a parliamentary system in the future, but vice president Qasim Fahim urged that a national covenant be framed by all political actors soon, and asked that the next elected administration acknowledge the accomplishments of the past few years and avoid political vendettas.

Other speakers included, Sibghatulah Mojadidi, Pir S. Ahmad Gailani, Anwarul Haq Ahadi, Moeen Marastyal (Right and Justice Party) and other politicians. The National Front, headed by Zia Massoud, Rashid Dostum and Mohamed Mohaqeq, was reported to have boycotted the event.

Other potential candidates, such as former Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani were also not present, but are known to be in favor of a strong accountability mechanism such as the ECC.

Trying to stay non-committal on all counts, President Karzai agreed that the date could be reviewed given IEC and parliamentary approval.

In regards to voter registration, Karzai hinted that, time permitting, if the cost borne by the international community could be assured, he is willing to scrap the old cards in favor of a new registration system.

On the selection of new commissioners, the president said he would consider the proposals after the current IEC term ends in the spring of 2013. But he vehemently opposed the appointment of two non-Afghan members on the ECC. Without offering evidence, he accused former foreign delegates of blatant interference.

He did not hint at scrapping the ECC during last week’s exchange, but he promised to send the draft of the election laws to parliament as soon as the cabinet provides final input.

All sides agreed to continue with the consultations, and even broaden the scope to address other national priority concerns. Some participants expressed their desire to see such consultations help forge a consensual arrangement to select a single candidate to be slated for 2014, but most of the opposition groups expressed their eagerness to bypass consensus-style arrangements in favor of a dynamic and transparent process that derives its legitimacy from the popular vote.

For Karzai, who is increasingly preoccupied with his legacy and future status, this offers an opportunity to mend fences and try to strengthen his hand for the 2014 transition, even though, by law, as he has indicated, he is not running.

For the opposition leaders - most of whom harbor very little trust in the current ruling clique – it boils down to a last ditch effort to reform the process through good-faith exchanges, avoid the damaging errors of 2009-2010, and make sure that the Afghan people have a legitimate process in place to decide in 2014.

The looming horizon of 2014, when NATO combat missions end, and international funding sharply drops, is probably the most powerful force spurring intra-Afghan dialogue.

But this intra-Afghan dialogue is now put to the test one more time.

The latest cabinet twist to ditch the ECC and transfer its powers to the judiciary, as reported by the IEC chairman, may erase the goodwill that was created last week, and put the three organs of state on a collision course, mobilize the opposition to make more forceful demands and even heighten tensions with the international donor community and the United Nations.

While some pundits are skeptical of the president’s motivations, and call his tactics as a “double-game”, the brainstorming session was, nonetheless, a positive development in a country where politics is usually combative and non-consultative.

It remains to be seen, however, to what extent goodwill will become a victim of tactical maneuvering, and whether a consultative process translates into enough confidence-building and mutual trust to assure the political process’ transparency and electoral fairness?

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