By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's long-delayed parliamentary and local council elections scheduled for July this year may have to be pushed back for another three months, an election commissioner said on Sunday citing organisational challenges.
The parliamentary polls, originally scheduled for July 2015, are seen as dry run for a presidential election in mid-2019 and a test of the progress made by Afghanistan's Western-backed government towards establishing durable democratic institutions.
"We are ready to hold the elections with two or three months' delay, but the security agencies must tell us whether they are ready," Wasima Badghisi, deputy head of operations at the Independent Election Commission told Reuters.
The problems in organising the parliamentary vote underline the fragility of the political institutions created in Afghanistan since a U.S.-led campaign brought down the Taliban in 2001.
International donor countries have laid heavy emphasis on the need for successful elections this year following a contentious presidential election in 2014 that was marred by allegations of massive voter fraud on both sides.
Referring to organisational problems, Badghisi said the appointment of a new member of the election commission had taken a lot of time, she also cited budget problems and insecurity.
Afghanistan has held two parliamentary elections since the end of Taliban rule, the first in 2005 and the second in 2010.
The five-year term of the parliament elected in 2010 was meant to expire in June 2015, but elections were postponed because of security fears and disagreements on how to ensure a fair vote after the bitterly disputed presidential election in 2014.
The current assembly is operating under a 2015 decree issued by President Ashraf Ghani extending parliament’s mandate until a vote could be held, a decision criticised by many Afghans who questioned whether the extension was legal.
District council elections have never been held, despite being mandated in the 2004 constitution.
Late last year, officials from international partners including the United Nations told the government that even under the most favourable conditions, the earliest date on which an election could feasibly be held was October 2018.
Many Western diplomats believe even that date is impossible.
If not ready by autumn this year, Afghanistan's mountainous terrain, bad roads and lack of security mean that registering voters and setting up balloting stations are likely to face severe delays over the winter, pushing the election into 2019.
The 2014 presidential election produced no agreed winner and led to a U.S.-brokered deal which saw former rivals Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah forced into an uneasy coalition that has struggled to win popular support.
(Editing by Kay Johnson and Toby Chopra)