By Mina Habib
Afghan president Hamid Karzai has said he may bring the next presidential election forward by a year, to reduce pressure on the government during the 2014 withdrawal of foreign troops.
“I have been talking about this for some time now,” Karzai said of a 2013 election, in remarks he made at a press conference with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on April 12. “With all the changes that are taking place, with the complete return of international forces to their homes from Afghanistan and the holding of the presidential election at the same time, [the question is] whether that will be an agenda that we can handle at the same time.
Since Karzai was elected to a second term in 2009, the next presidential election is not due until 2014.
The Afghan authorities will be left with full responsibility for national security when the NATO-led force leaves by the end of 2014, and some fear this will result in an upsurge of insurgent violence that would make it hard to hold any kind of election, let alone an inclusive and fair one.
The constitution bars Karzai from running for a third term, so his comments may indicate that he intends to step away from power before the international withdrawal.
“I have not had a final decision yet, and it will not be soon… but I am thinking about this and I will do what is good for this country,” he said at the press conference.
Karzai was elected president in October 2004, nearly three years after he was appointed interim head of a post-Taleban administration. When he stood for a second term in August 2009, the poll was marred by poor security, low turnout and allegations of widespread electoral fraud. A second round was cancelled after Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s main challenger, pulled out.
For now at least, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, IEC, is ruling out any change in date, and its chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi said the move would be unconstitutional.
“There is no reason to hold the election earlier, and no one can break the law,” he said.
Several analysts interviewed by IWPR backed the proposal, as the departure of foreign troops could mean the country is in no state to hold an election in 2014.
Many Afghans are leaving the country, in large part due to fears of what will happen following the troop withdrawal. (See Afghans Vote With Their Feet.)
Wahid Mozhda, a political analyst in Kabul, said an early election would make sense.
“If… there is an outbreak of civil war, the government won’t be able to handle two things at the same time,” he said. “This will lead to the presidential election being delayed, or not being held at all.”
Others see Karzai’s comments as a worrying admission that the Afghan army and police might not be able to keep a lid on things.
“If the president has no confidence in the Afghan security forces, why is he bluffing about their capacity?” Shahla Farid, a law lecturer at Kabul University, asked. “He should admit that they are unable to assume responsibility for security.”
The National Coalition, an opposition bloc that includes Abdullah’s Change and Hope group, said a change of date would be unconstitutional, as presidents have to serve out their five-year terms. National Coalition spokesman Sayed Hussein Fazel Sancharaki said Karzai should stick to the 2014 schedule.
“This way, we won’t be breaking the law, people will be ready for a transparent election,” he said. “The early election issue is just a political game pursued for specific objectives.”
Mozhda, however, suggested that the main objections to an earlier poll date came from politicians who were not yet ready to contest an election.
Kabul residents were similarly divided on the merits of a 2013 ballot.
“The Afghan constitution is like a notebook where statesmen write whatever they want, and then strike it out,” she said. Sima, a 32-year-old teacher, said. “The election should take place in line with the law, on schedule.”
But Kabir, a 34-year-old shopkeeper, said an early election would be better than no election at all once foreign troops leave.
“If the president’s initiative is in the national interest, it should implemented even if it violates the Afghan constitution,” he added.
Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained contributor in Kabul. This article was published at IWPR’s ARR Issue 431.