Eleven days ago, I heard a rumor that the office of President Hamid Karzai had re-written Afghanistan’s Election Law in ways that would deal a blow to the country’s beleaguered democrats. The changes had gone into force through a presidential decree, I was told.  While the international press was still quiet, ripples of alarm were already spreading through Kabul-based civil society.

The story is out now, and the worst has been confirmed.

Among other changes, the decree gives the president the power to appoint all five members of the country’s election watchdog, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), the formerly UN-backed body that uncovered massive fraud during last year’s presidential election. Before, three of the commissioners were appointed by the UN, one by the Supreme Court, and one by the Independent Election Commission (IEC), a body accused of favoring the incumbent president last August.

Former UN senior political adviser Gerard Russell described the decree in a Guardian comment piece as “a terrible blow to the intended legacy of the 2001 invasion – fair elections, democratic institutions and a constitutional government.”

2010 is yet another election year in Afghanistan. In September, Afghans will vote in the second parliamentary elections since the overthrow of the Taliban regime eight years ago. 

In an unpublished interview I conducted in December 2009, Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and chair of the Free and Fair Election Foundation for Afghanistan described the importance of a strong and independent ECC :

During the last election, the ECC was not able to establish offices in all provinces. Complaints were taken by the IEC offices during the campaign and then processed by the ECC. This did not work, as we saw. The best way [to collect complaints ahead of the election] is to empower and resource the ECC. During the 2010 elections, the ECC must have offices in all provinces. This will strengthen the legitimacy of the process. The IEC is not regarded as an impartial institution, and people are not willing to bring their complaints to the IEC. This is especially true for complaints against the IEC itself. The government will talk about how the ECC is run by foreigners, but this is because the government does not trust the ECC. The people trust the ECC.

With control over both institutions, “the president can be sure that the parliament elected this September will be dominated by his allies,” according to Russell.

A badly tainted parliamentary election six months from now would remove Afghanistan’s strongest institutional check on presidential power.

 “The government and the IEC are gearing up for a series of elections that are as controlled as possible, and with as little fuss as possible,” wrote Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analyst Network blog in a long analysis piece on the law.

“The struggle for a cleaner election has for the moment been lost. We need to think hard how to deal with that.”

Afghan civil society activists are undoubtedly discussing how to proceed from here, while at the same time wondering how many of their foreign friends will back them up, how far, and for how long.

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