KABUL — Five months before parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, donor nations are worried about another messy vote and some international officials are even discussing whether the polls should be delayed.
After years of encouraging democracy, some Western nations find themselves in the uncomfortable position of wondering whether another round of voting will do more harm than good in the violence-wracked country.
The parliamentary elections are due in May. Donor nations, including the U.S. and Britain, fear the upcoming vote could be a repeat of the August presidential election, which was rife with ballot-box stuffing and deadly violence, unless deep reforms are made to clean up the Afghan-run electoral process.
Another flawed vote would erode the credibility of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government at a time when he has pledged to battle corruption and improve services. Also, having to guard polling stations in May would be a distraction for the 30,000 U.S. reinforcements and thousands of other foreign troops recently deployed with orders to stall the Taliban's momentum and improve security so development can occur.
Afghan officials will have the final say on whether to postpone the vote, but the international community holds the purse strings.
"We are ready to carry out our duties. The only problem for us is money," said Noor Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission. "That is up to the donor countries who are providing us the funds. We are waiting for a response from them next month."
While the international community has not publicly threatened to hold back funds, some Western diplomats are quietly hoping Afghan officials decide to delay the election, according to two international officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they want to avoid any appearance of meddling in Afghan politics.
There is little consensus within the international community about what to do. Countries providing troops and aid to Afghanistan are weighing their desire to support the war-wracked nation's fragile democracy with the risk of financing another fraud-marred election.
If the May parliamentary elections are held, significant obstacles must be overcome, said Melanie Scarlett, press officer at the British Embassy in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
"Before committing further funding and putting our troops and those of our international partners at risk, we need to be sure that the lessons learned have been implemented and that the elections will make a contribution to improving Afghan governance," she said.
On the other hand, India insists the elections be held in May as required by the Afghan constitution.
"There is no question of India's views on this. The constitution should be respected and the aspirations of Afghan people should be guarded," said J.P. Singh, a spokesman for the Indian Embassy in Kabul.
In parliament, lawmakers are trying to chose between honoring the constitution or supporting a delay in hopes that steps can be taken to curb cheating.
"We have heard that there are problems with the funding," said Mohammad Aqbal Safi, a parliamentarian from Kapisa province in eastern Afghanistan. "This has created concerns among members of parliament because it is against the law not to hold the elections. And it has created concerns among the people who are not happy with the current members and want to elect somebody else."
If there is no election, or it is delayed, the current parliament will be criticized as illegal, he said.
"We want the election to be held," he said. "We know that in Afghanistan we have a problem, but we should find a solution to that and have the election on time."
As debate continues, preparations for the elections are moving into high gear: Ballot boxes are being counted. Polling stations are being plotted on maps. Workers are completing a budget for the May vote, which is estimated to cost at least $120 million, according to the election commission spokesman.
The presidential election in August – the first run by Afghans since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 – was supposed to affirm the government's credibility. Instead, massive fraud tarnished the Karzai government's reputation. The election was so soiled that U.N.-backed fraud investigators threw out more than a million votes – enough to force Karzai into a second round vote. The rerun was later canceled when Karzai's top challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out.
Taliban fighters killed dozens of people during the August balloting, firing rockets at several provincial cities. On the first day of campaigning for the canceled runoff, the Taliban denounced the contest as "a failed, American process" and said fighters would "launch operations against the enemy and stop people from taking part" in the voting.
Peter Galbraith, the former the top-ranking American in the U.N. mission in Kabul, said unless the nation's electoral institutions are completely revamped, the parliamentary elections will be as fraudulent at the presidential ballot.
"This will undermine the fading confidence of Afghans in democracy and will further diminish the already low credibility of Karzai's government," said Galbraith, who was fired in September after claiming that Kai Eide, the head of the U.N. mission, was not bullish enough in preventing fraud in the presidential election.
"Unless the problems that led to massive fraud in 2009 are fixed, the only sure winner of next year's parliamentary elections will be the Taliban," Galbraith said.
Shakeba Hashimi, a parliamentarian from Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, is in favor of holding the elections on time, but having them on schedule will not make them free and fair, which is also required by the constitution. Hashimi said she will not be a member of parliament again because Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's brother, already has chosen her replacement.
"They don't want election, they want selection," said Hashimi, who campaigned for Karzai's opponent in the presidential election. "Karzai's brother thinks he is the king of Kandahar and can do whatever he wants."
Mohammad Mohin Murastyal, a member of parliament from Kunduz province in the north, wants the elections delayed, but only briefly until reforms can be put in place.
"My personal view is that if we postpone the election for a few months to get a good parliament for the next five years, that would be better than having a fraudulent election that would put the legitimacy of the newly elected parliament into question," he said.