Karzai vote rules compromise ends standoff with West

KABUL Sat Apr 17, 2010 5:26pm EDT

Staffan De Mistura, the new Special Representative of the United Nations for Afghanistan, speaks during a news conference in Kabul April 17, 2010. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Staffan De Mistura, the new Special Representative of the United Nations for Afghanistan, speaks during a news conference in Kabul April 17, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Omar Sobhani

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KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai named officials on Saturday to oversee a parliamentary election, sealing a compromise with the United Nations and effectively ending a damaging stand-off with the West.

Karzai's quarrel with Western donors over rules for September's vote led to a diplomatic shouting match with Washington this month that brought relations between the war-time allies to a new low.

In Saturday's announcement, Karzai put a former judge and legal scholar in charge of the election commission, and also named an Iraqi and a South African to a separate election fraud panel, satisfying international pressure to include foreigners.

Donors had threatened to withhold funds to pay for the election if reforms were not implemented to reduce the chance of a repeat of fraud in a presidential vote last year. Karzai, meanwhile, had tried to reduce foreign influence on the process.

"We hope that by appointing the head of the Independent Election Commission and members of the Electoral Complaints Commission, the international community will take a step forward in terms of holding the election and start giving their financial and technical support as soon as possible," Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omer told a news conference announcing the appointments.

The head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, said he would now recommend that Western donors released funds to pay for the vote. The changes were part of a compromise hammered out to avert a stand-off between Karzai, donors and parliament, he said.

"I want to congratulate President Karzai for his wise decision to agree to guidelines aimed at ensuring more credible and transparent elections," de Mistura said.

Karzai's choice of former judge Fazel Ahmad Manawi to head the election commission was one "the international community and certainly the U.N. feels very comfortable with," he added.

The president's opponents had accused Manawi's predecessor of failing to stop last year's fraud. Karzai removed him last week.

The U.S. embassy and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force both issued statements praising the deal.

"Credible and inclusive parliamentary elections will help to resolve the political tensions which fuel the insurgency and to entrench the development of Afghan democracy," said Mark Sedwill, the chief civilian representative of the NATO-led force.

KARZAI'S STANDING HURT BY VOTE FRAUD CLAIMS

Karzai's standing in the West was severely damaged by last year's presidential election, when the foreign-led fraud panel threw out nearly a third of his votes because of ballot stuffing.

The United Nations appointed three of the five members of the fraud panel last year. In a February decree, Karzai claimed the authority to appoint all the members, angering donors and members of parliament. He later negotiated a compromise with de Mistura under which two foreigners would be included.

Tension in the election rules negotiations prompted Karzai to deliver a speech on April 1 in which he accused the West of perpetrating the fraud in last year's vote. The White House responded angrily to those remarks, calling them disturbing and untrue, but later made an effort to smooth over the relationship.

Although the two foreigners -- Iraqi Mustafa Safwat Sediqi and South African Johann Kriegler -- will no longer have a majority on the fraud panel as last year, de Mistura said they would each have veto power over its decisions.

Western diplomats have said they agreed panel members should no longer come from countries with big military presences, to avoid the impression of bias. The panel's head during last year's dispute came from Canada, which has 3,000 troops in Afghanistan.

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