The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, said today that presidential elections would go ahead on Aug 20, in an about-face on his decision a week ago to issue a decree for an April ballot. Mr Karzai told a press conference he accepted the election commission's decision, three days after the independent body called for the original August date to be kept. Mr Karzai, under huge pressure from the United Nations, the United States and other Afghan allies to support the commission's August date, caused a stir when he issued his decree calling for an April 20 ballot.
The commission had said staging elections in a matter of weeks was impossible given the overwhelming security problems in the insurgency-wracked central Asian country. Nearly five million people, 32 per cent of them women, are registered to vote in only the country's second ever presidential elections to be conducted under universal suffrage. Mr Karzai won a 55 per cent majority in the first at the end of 2004 but his popularity has been severely damaged by his failure to check rising violence and corruption levels.
The president initially objected to the August date because his five-year term expires on May 21 and the constitution states that the vote must be held 30 to 60 days before that date. "In January there was suddenly a disagreement (about the Aug 20 date) and the lower house passed a resolution calling upon me, as protector of the constitution, to implement the constitution," he said today. "Now some of our friends say the first decision is acceptable ... I respect and have accepted the decision of the electoral commission."
There is hot debate on the legitimacy of any power Mr Karzai may hold between May and August. The opposition has calling for the creation of an interim administration, but some analysts have suggested that declaring a state of emergency is a better solution. The election commission in January delayed the vote until August, saying it needed the time to prepare and wanted Nato military reinforcements on the ground to help secure the polls from Taliban attack.
Nato's top military officer, US General John Craddock, is seeking four extra battalions of troops to help provide security. Depending on the country it is drawn from, a battalion usually numbers between 800 and 1,200 troops. The United States recently announced the deployment of 17,000 extra troops, mainly to the south where the insurgency is at its worst, but those soldiers are unlikely to be fully in place until July, under current planning.