(Reuters) - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani sacked the chairman of the country's Independent Election Commission on November 15 raising doubts over whether parliamentary and council ballots scheduled for next year will take place as planned.
Najibullah Ahmadzai, head of the body charged with organizing the elections, had faced growing pressure following repeated delays to preparations for them and had lost the support of both Ghani and disillusioned foreign donors.
The 2018 votes are seen as dry runs for a presidential election in 2019 and a key test of the progress made by Afghanistan's Western-backed government towards establishing durable democratic institutions.
Following a contentious presidential election in 2014, marred by allegations of massive voter fraud on both sides, international donor countries have laid heavy emphasis on the need for successful elections next year.
But planning has been beset by a mix of technical and political problems that have made the officially scheduled date of July 2018 increasingly unrealistic. Five members of the seven-member IEC wrote to Ghani this week accusing Ahmadzai of was incompetence.
Ambitious plans for a biometric voter registration system had to be abandoned and squabbling between members of parliament and Ghani's fragile National Unity Government over issues including who sits on the election commission have caused months of delay.
The problems underline the fragility of the political institutions created in Afghanistan since a U.S.-led campaign brought down the Taliban in 2001.
The bitter 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.
District council elections have never been held, despite being mandated in the 2004 constitution, while the current parliament's term was supposed to end in June 2015 but has been extended due to the difficulty of holding new elections.
Last month, officials from international partners including the United Nations told the Afghan government that even under the most favorable 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 October, Afghanistan's mountainous terrain, bad roads and lack of security mean that registering voters and setting up balloting stations across the country are likely to face severe delays over the winter months, potentially pushing the date into the following year.