Afghanistan's fledgling Constitution is facing a test, as President Hamid Karzai and his opponents are currently battling for control of the country's political agenda. The dispute centers on the dates for the country's next presidential election. The legitimacy of Afghanistan's government is at stake.The confrontation began brewing last fall when an informal political "understanding" between parliament, the president and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) on holding elections in early autumn 2009 appeared to fall through. Following the IEC's January 29 announcement that elections would be held August 20, members of the opposition balked. They insisted letting Karzai hold onto the presidency until August would violate the constitution, which states that all presidential terms must end on the first of the Afghan month of Jawza, this year coinciding with May 21 of the western calendar.In response, Karzai announced on February 28 that elections should be held this spring in accordance with the constitution. His deft move surprised the opposition, which had apparently hoped the president would step down or at least agree to reduce his powers during the three-month interim between the official end to his term and elections in August. Observers say the opposition is now in a dither. An April election puts Karzai in an advantageous position, as the perks of incumbency would prove especially useful in a short campaign season. Challengers, for instance, would have little time to organize campaigns. On the defensive, some members of the opposition United Front say they have changed their mind, and now favor an August election.While anti-incumbency feeling is strong, the lack of a viable alternative will be Karzai's biggest strength as he campaigns for a second term. Political analyst Haroun Mir, founder of Afghanistan's Centre for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS), points out that no potential candidate has come forward with an alternative agenda. "Saying Karzai is bad is not enough," he told EurasiaNet. "Where are [the opposition's] programs?"An early election would also allow the US administration of President Barack Obama -- which appears increasingly frustrated with Karzai -- less time to formulate a new Afghan policy. Though the Obama Administration has publicly stated it will not back any candidate, most Afghans and observers believe that any sign of American support could tilt the results in favor of a particular candidate. In response to Karzai's call for early elections, acting State Department spokesman Robert Wood appeared to contradict the Afghan president's view, saying in a statement that Washington preferred sticking with a summer vote. "Elections in August, as proposed by the Independent Elections Commission, are the best means to assure every Afghan citizen would be able to express his or her political preference in a secure environment," Wood said.The country's electoral law further complicates Karzai's avowed intensions. Afghanistan's constitution says the IEC must announce elections 140 days before polling, a date that has already passed if the elections are to be held in April or even May. Independent MP Shukria Barakzai thinks the subject of dates "is a political problem, not a legal one." She suggested that invoking emergency powers in parts of the country might be a way to defuse the constitutional crisis. Afghanistan's Constitution allows for elections to be delayed in case of an emergency declared by the president, and ratified by the parliament. The biggest drawback to this option, though, is that it would serve as a tacit admission that the government is not able to govern. Reacting to some suggestions that a Loya Jirga, or grand tribal council, could be held as a stopgap measure, Barakzai said: "Elections are the only legitimate way of choosing a leadership, and a young democracy needs elections. We should not take a step back and have a Loya Jirga, or temporary arrangement."Mir of ACRPS also favors change through elections, saying it would bring new momentum to the political process. "The conflict is also based on psychological perception. If people gain hope, the situation will automatically improve. We need new leadership, not a repeat of what we have had for the past five years," he said.The IEC has not reacted to the recent developments, stating only that it would make known its stance once it is officially notified of the presidential decree. The United Nations -- which is supporting the electoral process -- and other members of the international community have also maintained public silence. Privately, however, Western officials have expressed disquiet over recent developments, concerned that given the mammoth task of preparing logistics, an early election would be nearly impossible, or at the very least compromise the principles of fairness.The logistics of voter registration, including security, making lists and vetting of candidates, and printing and distribution of ballots are difficult tasks given the lack of capacity in Afghanistan. The difficulty is compounded by the country's topography, the heavy snowfall in winter, and the ongoing Taliban insurgency.While constitutional requirements and legal technicalities form the front piece of the ongoing tussle, it is the backroom agreements that will finally determine when the elections shall be held, experts say. As an international observer in Kabul remarked wryly, "All these issues were known to us. Why didn't we deal with them before?"
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 18 years.