KABUL  : President Hamid Karzai on Saturday approved a second law designed to pave the way for smooth transition of power in Afghanistan next year, easing Western concerns that key elections could be delayed.

Karzai’s signature on the law, which determines how presidential and provincial votes will be run, follows pressure from donor nations determined to prove that the 12-year war and billions of dollars of aid money have not been in vain.

His office said Karzai’s decree meant the law had come into immediate effect.

On Wednesday he also approved a bill tightening up the appointments procedure for the electoral complaints watchdog, which was integral to unmasking massive fraud at the last presidential election in 2009.

Afghanistan is due to elect a new president and council members for its 34 provinces on April 5, with Karzai barred from running after serving a maximum two terms. A corrupt election and a contested result would undermine efforts to establish a functioning state in Afghanistan after US-led NATO combat troops withdraw in 2014. Some fear the country could return to civil war as Taliban rebels fight to regain power.

US-led NATO combat troops, who have supported the Afghan government against the Taliban insurgency, are due to withdraw just months after the election.

Observers on Saturday welcomed the new legislation, but said much would depend on its implementation.

Women’s rights activists are likely to be concerned that it reduces from 25 to 20 percent the proportion of seats guaranteed for women on the provincial councils.

The 25 percent quota had been introduced after the 2001 US-led invasion to guarantee a voice for women in the deeply conservative country where they are largely relegated to second-class citizens.

Jandad Spinghar, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said that many suggestions from civil society designed to make the vote a more level playing field had not been accepted by parliament.

But on the weaker women’s representation, he said it was still preferable to a decision taken in the upper house of parliament that women should have no quota.

“We also demanded a more transparent mechanism to control the financial affairs and spending of election candidates... it was also turned down by MPs,” he said. But overall, the law should be welcomed, he said.

“If good and honest people are selected and appointed to the election commisions, we can expect a good implementation of this law as well. We’ll have to wait and see who the president decides to introduce as commissioners,” he told AFP.

Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) think tank, said the legislation was a compromise on deeply contentious issues.

“So there is a sense of relief, that the process has not remained stalled and that no big tricks have been played,” she told AFP.

“Of course, suspicions remain and if politics escalate there may be attempts to sideline or manipulate the various safeguards, but the signing of the two laws does make that more difficult,” she added. It remains unclear who will run for president.

Among a long list of possible candidates are Qayum Karzai, the president’s brother, Omar Daudzai, a former chief of staff, and warlord-turned-governor Atta Mohammad Noor.

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Davood Moradian, director of the Afghanistan Institute for Strategic Studies, said holding free and democratic elections were dependent on wider factors.

He said preparations for the election must become a priority as soon as possible, insecurity needed to be contained and Afghan-US relations needed to stabilise.

“Synergising Afghan and international efforts is the most effective way in minimising the manipulation of the election by the palace,” he told AFP.