New Afghan election chief promises to clean house

By Sayed Salahuddin and Peter Graff

KABUL (BestGrowthStock) – Afghanistan’s newly appointed election chief promised on Sunday to remove officials responsible for fraud in last year’s presidential vote in time to hold a cleaner parliamentary election this year.

Fazl Ahmad Manawi, a former judge tapped by President Hamid Karzai to run the Independent Election Commission as part of a reform package agreed with the United Nations, said security was still the biggest risk to holding a free and fair vote.

Avoiding a repeat of last year’s damaging vote fraud is an important goal in Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents have expanded the scope and scale of attacks in recent years despite the presence of some 130,000 U.S. and NATO-led foreign troops.

Negotiations over the election rules grew into a diplomatic row between Karzai and the White House this month after Karzai accused the West of being behind last year’s fraud, remarks Washington called “disturbing” and untrue.

Both sides have since said they had moved beyond the dispute.

Karzai’s opponents had accused Manawi’s predecessor of failing to stop vote fraud, and Western donors threatened to block funding for this year’s vote without reforms.

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Saturday the international community was comfortable with the choice of Manawi, and he could now recommend donors pay to fund the vote.

The U.S. embassy, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the European Union have all praised the changes and said they are now preparing to help with the vote.

AVOID REPEATING “WEAKNESSES”

In a telephone interview with Reuters, Manawi said he would evaluate election commission staff, try to determine who was behind last year’s fraud and either sideline or push them out.

“We would like to keep, and even perhaps promote, those who carried out good things in last year’s poll and reshuffle or remove those who committed violations, even if they are in very sensitive posts,” Manawi said.

“There will be a meeting with the election team and all of our provincial heads for consulting and evaluating those points which caused weaknesses last year and avoid repeating them.”

Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s main presidential challenger and the most outspoken critic of the previous election commission, said he was pleased with the choice of Manawi, but the commission would still have to prove it was independent.

“He’s known for being an independent person,” Abdullah told Reuters, referring to Manawi. “The removal of the culprits in the fraud … that was a positive move. But at the same time, I should say that this is not enough. Far from it. They have to prove themselves in action.”

Abdullah said officials still had to resolve a question of whether to apply an election decree, issued by Karzai in February, which alters many rules. Parliament’s lower house voted to overturn the decree but Karzai’s camp says it is in force.

Manawi said donors have promised to release the funds for the election, which would cost $100 million, adding he would push to print ballot papers in Afghanistan to bring the costs down.

The Taliban tried to disrupt last year’s poll. Security threats, mainly in parts of the south and east, paved the way for ballot stuffing in those areas.

“Our main problem is security, and we are hopeful of conducting the election in a secure atmosphere. The election will be weak in areas where security is weak,” Manawi said.

U.S. commanders hope to improve security in the months before the vote, with the deployment of 30,000 extra U.S. troops sent by President Barack Obama to turn the tide of the war this year.

Investment Research

(Editing by Paul Tait)

New Afghan election chief promises to clean house