Page last updated at 16:22 GMT, Saturday, 13 March 2010

Afghanistan: Karzai to let foreigners on poll watchdog

File pic of President Hamid Karzai
President Karzai was forced into a poll run-off last year

The Afghan president has agreed to let two foreigners join a panel monitoring September's parliamentary elections, reversing an earlier decision.

Last month Hamid Karzai signed a decree letting him appoint all five members of the Electoral Complaints Commission.

But he came under fire for what some saw as a bid to control a body which stripped nearly a third of his votes in last year's fraud-tainted election.

Mr Karzai was declared the eventual victor after his opponent dropped out.

On Saturday, a spokesman said Mr Karzai would now accept some foreigners on the body, because the nation was on a "transitional phase" to democracy.

"The Afghan government has shown its readiness to accept two non-Afghans on the Electoral Complaints Commission and this has been announced to the United Nations," Waheed Omar said.

However the ECC would still be controlled by Afghans, who would have a majority of the votes, Mr Omar said.

The BBC's Quentin Sommerville, in Kabul, says Western governments reacted angrily last month when Mr Karzai announced he was taking full control of the ECC, in effect, stripping the United Nations of its power to appoint three of the five members.

Vital role

One Western official, speaking to the BBC, had questioned whether the international community would be willing to underwrite the costs of another election, which could be deeply flawed.

The watchdog's foreign members helped expose massive fraud in last year's presidential poll, discounting nearly one million votes for Mr Karzai, and forcing him into a run-off.

But days before the vote in early November, the vote was scrapped, with officials citing a need to avert further political damage to Afghanistan and a rerun of the Taliban violence that marred the first round.

Mr Karzai's only rival, Abdullah Abdullah, had earlier pulled out of the run-off, saying that it would not be free or fair.

Correspondents say the commission - which previously had three foreign experts appointed by the United Nations - will play a vital role in this year's parliamentary poll.

The UK Foreign Office said it saw Mr Karzai's latest move as a "good development".

Earlier this month, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband told the BBC he was in favour of foreign representation on the panel.

"... The most important thing is that we have people of independence and integrity who are able to hold the system up to account and look the Afghan people in the eye and say we've defended your right to a democratic ballot," Mr Miliband said.

'Difficult times'

Mr Karzai's latest announcement came on the same day that the UN's new senior envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura arrived in the country.

At Kabul airport, the Swedish diplomat and a former UN representative in Iraq spoke of the UN's plans for Afghanistan.

"Whatever the UN will be doing - and we will be doing what we can in order to assist both the stability and the socio-economic improvement of the Afghan people - will be done remembering that it should be Afghan-led and it should be Afghan-owned and in total respect of their own sovereignty."

He added: "The Afghan people have suffered a lot and endured a lot of difficult times. They deserve the international support but they deserve above all a better future and the UN will do its part."

His predecessor, Kai Eide, warned earlier this month that the mission in Afghanistan had reached a critical point.

Mr Eide said progress had been made but he also warned that "negative trends" could become irreversible over the next 12 months.

The former envoy's two-year posting was overshadowed by controversy over his handling of the 2009 presidential elections.

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