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Afghanistan: EU Urges Delay In Elections

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Citing logistical and security concerns, the European Union yesterday said elections in Afghanistan should be delayed until at least September. The European Commission also announced a further aid grant to support voter registration and said other donors need to contribute more.

Brussels, 3 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission yesterday said credible elections cannot be held in Afghanistan by the June deadline set down in the 2001 Bonn agreement.

Emma Udwin, the external relations spokeswoman for the commission, cited the enormous logistical difficulties facing the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which is in charge of voter registration and organizing other aspects of the poll.

"You can't have free and fair elections if you haven't registered the population, and notably of course in this country, the women, to vote."
Udwin said the EU has informed Afghan authorities of its concerns and raised the issue at this week’s (1 March) meeting of the EU's "troika" with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington. The troika comprises the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, and the commissioner for external relations, Chris Patten.

"We're saying -- and we said that in the [EU] 'troika' meeting with the Americans [1 March] -- that we think it's more important for Afghanistan to have credible elections later than elections early that will not be trusted by the population. So, if all of this means that the elections will have to be delayed, perhaps till the autumn, so be it. It's better that people feel they can trust the results of the elections when they come, and that UNAMA should have the personnel, the materials, the vehicles, the cameras they need to do a proper job. And that when we have those elections, Afghans can be sure they've got the result they chose," Udwin said.

An EU official, who asked not to be named, told RFE/RL that, according to the latest estimates, less than one-tenth of Afghanistan's estimated 10.5 million voters have been registered. The official said that for the elections to be credible, a "critical mass" of at least 70 percent of registered voters needs to be attained.

The European Commission yesterday announced a further 8 million euro ($9.7 million) grant to support the work of UNAMA, bringing the total EU contribution to 30 million euros. However, an estimated 90 million euros is needed, of which less than one-third had been made available by mid-February.

Announcing the additional EU aid grant, Udwin stressed the importance of engaging women in the process and called for other donors to follow suit.

"You can't have free and fair elections if you haven't registered the population, and notably of course in this country, the women, to vote. This is a project which has been managed by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, who've run into some fairly significant problems. As things stand, for elections which are scheduled for June, they've only registered one-tenth of those eligible to vote. We're putting in extra money. Others will need to do so. There will need to be extra contributions to security, as well," Udwin said.

The unnamed EU official said the registration process also faces enormous logistical difficulties. Given Afghanistan's 15 percent literacy rate, finding the 33,000 literate people needed to conduct and monitor the elections is a serious challenge. The official added that Afghanistan is in need of "more of everything" -- in particular mobile phones and vehicles.

Security is another major concern. The official noted that polling stations are likely to be seen as "soft targets" by the various groups of insurgents in the country, adding that while NATO is looking for more troops, they are unlikely to be deployed by June, "even if member states find them."

The EU official said the bloc's external relations commissioner, Patten, regards September "as a better date than June" for elections.

Udwin yesterday confirmed that the EU brought up its concerns at a recent high-level visit to Kabul. She said the delegation was met with at least partial understanding on the part of the current Afghan administration under Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai.

"I think that when we spoke to them during the [EU] 'troika' mission -- was it only last week [or] two weeks ago? -- they have an understanding that it may be necessary to shift the date. They don't want to take the decision yet. They are planning a major -- I think they are calling it a 'national mobilization' -- a major registration drive in May, and they will embark on that in the light of what happens at the Berlin international [donors] conference, which as you know is at the end of March, beginning of April. So they're aware that they may have to shift the date, but they have not taken any final decisions," Udwin said.

The EU official said the EU also considers it necessary to hold both the presidential and parliamentary elections as close together as possible. This is essential, the official said, as the new president will inevitably hail from one ethnic group and will need the support of a body of legislators that represents all of the population.

The official said that without such support, parts of the electorate who did not vote for the president are likely to feel unrepresented.

The official acknowledged that a presidential poll is easier to hold than parliamentary elections, as fewer candidates are needed and issues relating to determining constituency borders do not arise.

The UN assistance mission is also reported to be considering whether regional elections may have to be held before parliamentary polls.

The unnamed EU official said there is little prospect of new EU pledges emerging at the two-day Berlin donors conference, which begins at the end of this month. The officials noted the EU is by far the largest donor to Afghanistan, having made a 1 billion euro commitment in 2001 for the period 2002 to 2006. The bloc has already spent significantly more than envisaged in the past two years.