Under the Bonn accords, the vote originally was to have taken place by June 2004. But it was postponed until this spring to resolve security concerns and technical hurdles. Now, in order to conduct the vote by 20 May, Afghanistan's electoral law must be changed. That's because the legal deadline for creating electoral district boundaries -- 120 days before the actual vote -- has already passed. Other contentious issues, such as the kind of voting system to be employed, also are still being debated in Kabul.
Elections for the lower chamber of the Afghan Parliament -- as well as for provincial and district councils -- are far more complicated than last October's presidential election. Confronted with these difficulties, Afghan officials appear ready to delay the polls until later this year.
"Practically, I think those who are involved with it have known for quite some time that it really is not possible to hold proper elections to the lower house -- let alone the much more complicated elections to the provincial and district councils -- in the spring of this year," said Barnett Rubin, a prominent expert on Afghanistan who serves as the director of studies at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. "And it probably will not be possible to hold elections to the district councils this year at all."
One obvious difficulty has been the absence of reliable census data needed to allocate the number of parliamentary seats to each province. Instead, those allocations will be based on pre-census household surveys in each province. The last of these pre-census population estimates is nearing completion. Final results have not been confirmed.
"The constitution says that members of the lower house of parliament have to be elected in proportion to the population. The way that is implemented in the electoral law is that each province is a multimember district. And the number of seats is proportionate to the population -- in addition to which there have to be an average of at least two women per province in the lower house," Rubin said. "The population [estimates] of the different provinces is a very politically important issue. It will determine the weight of power in the parliament. Whoever feels disfavored by the result -- which is likely to be everyone -- will suspect that they have been subjected to some kind of political manipulation."
Afghan officials have not commented publicly on whether the elections will be delayed.
German Defense Minister Peter Struck recently told journalists in Berlin, however, that he has seen indications that President Hamid Karzai is considering a postponement until the fall.
Karzai yesterday appointed a new Election Commission to oversee the parliamentary vote.
Sultan Ahmad Bahin, a spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said that the Election Commission has not yet discussed the possibility of a delay. He said he hopes the commission will announce a firm date for the ballot within a few weeks.
"One obvious difficulty has been the absence of reliable census data needed to allocate the number of parliamentary seats to each province."
Rubin told RFE/RL that it would be within the framework of the Afghan Constitution to delay the date for elections to the lower house of parliament until autumn and postpone local elections, which are even more complicated, until sometime after that.
"I think that probably what they will do is aim to have the elections to the lower house and to provincial councils early in the fall. I think that district elections will take longer. That's extremely difficult to have different elections in over 300 districts," Rubin said. "It's possible that some of those district elections will be held in the fall in areas where they think it is possible. And others will be held at different times. That would not violate the constitution. But then they would face the problem of how to constitute the [upper house of] parliament given that the bodies that are supposed to elect part of the parliament -- that is, the district councils -- are not constituted."
Tom Muller, communications manager for a Kabul-based election-monitoring group called the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, said his organization expects a delay of parliamentary elections at least until June or July -- depending on how quickly decisions can be made on several critical issues.
"There needs to be some final decisions taken on the electoral system for the parliamentary elections. Will it be a single nontransferable vote system or will it be a [proportional representative] list system?" Muller said. "There are ongoing debates within Kabul -- both within the government and also amongst other stakeholders -- about what is the most appropriate system. So that's the most critical decision to be taken."
Muller noted that under current electoral law, the ballot for the lower chamber of parliament is set up as a nontransferable vote system. That means each vote goes to a specific candidate rather than to a political party. Muller suggested that this aspect of the electoral law could be changed as a result of the ongoing debate in Kabul.
"The alternative which is being debated and which we really think would be the most appropriate for Afghanistan is a 'proportional representative list' system. This would enable political parties to run more effectively across the country," Muller said. "It would do more to promote multiethnic, multiregional parties that run candidates throughout the country, while also still enabling independents. It's more likely to lead to a functioning parliament made up of political parties, rather than a parliament fragmented among parties and individuals -- which would be the result under a single nontransferable vote system."
Security concerns also remain.
Michael Griffin, an author and part-time consultant to the United Nations, wrote in the latest edition of "Jane's Defense Weekly" that parliamentary elections are expected to be more competitive -- and more violent -- than the presidential vote last October. There were several dozens scattered attacks against polling stations and electoral workers, but security efforts thwarted any major incidents on polling day.
Griffin wrote that the legislative elections have the capacity to give political legitimacy to warlords who are connected to the heroin trade or to past human rights abuses.
(Sultan Sarwar of RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this story.)