Afghan president moves up elections
KABUL, Afghanistan: President Hamid Karzai decreed Saturday that presidential elections be moved forward to April or May, just weeks after they were set for August, in what appears to be an attempt to avert constitutional challenges to his legitimacy.
Karzai, who has declared his intention to run for a second term, is supposed to step down on May 21, when his current five-year term ends, under the terms of the country's Constitution. But Afghanistan's election commission announced in January that weather conditions and poor security had forced it to delay presidential and provincial elections until Aug. 20, which immediately raised questions over Karzai's legitimacy for the intervening three months.
The sudden order for elections within two or three months would resolve the constitutional issue, but it would also present the Afghan government and coalition forces with an immense logistical and security task. The head of the election commission, Atiqullah Ludin, declined to comment on the decree and said the commission would have to meet once it received the official document.
United Nations and Western officials had supported the delay of the elections. They said they hoped that the extra time would allow for better organization and give the thousands of extra American forces arriving by the end of April time to improve security in southern Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents have left many districts inaccessible for government and election officials.
But opposition groups have protested the delay and repeatedly called for elections to be held at least 30 days before May 21, in keeping with the Constitution, or for Karzai to step down at the end of his term and hand over power to an interim leader until the vote.
Snap elections might favor Karzai, as his opponents would probably be unprepared for such a short campaign. The earlier elections also would keep him from having to run a campaign while under a cloud of accusations that he had overstayed his term and was no longer a legitimate president.
Western officials said that the dates now being considered were in April or May. One United States military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political nature of the topic, said he was confident that NATO and United States forces would be able to provide the necessary security by May.
Opposition leaders repeated their demands Wednesday at a meeting at the presidential palace and refused to accept Karzai's staying on as president after May 21, said a spokesman for the main opposition group, the National Front.
Karzai then issued the decree on Saturday ordering that all elections be held in accordance with the Constitution. The decree said the president had taken into account the views of the main power brokers of his government since 2001, as well as scholars, lawyers and the people, and made the decision in the interests of national unity.
In a message aimed at the Taliban and other insurgents who oppose the elections, the decree called on all opposition parties and opponents of the government to contribute to the national process and to allow voters and candidates to participate.
The final decision about moving up the vote remains with the election commission, which is nominally independent but has always acted in close consultation with the president and the United States and other foreign countries that provide financing for the elections.
Sayed Aqa Sangcharaki, spokesman for the National Front, welcomed the decree on Saturday. He said the movement would meet in the coming days to announce its presidential candidate.
Karzai has frequently said he does not want to stay in power one day longer than his elected term, yet he had accepted the delay proposed by the election commission until calls grew for him to step aside. Opposition groups have argued that an interim leader would provide for a fairer election.
One Western official in Kabul said Karzai's announcement was more of a political game to avert accusations of illegitimacy that had grown stronger in recent days.
"He is drawing a line in the sand for his own reasons," the official said. "Karzai wants to be beyond reproach," he said, asking not to be named because of the political nature of his comments.
Sangcharaki said that Karzai moved the election up to avoid having to step down as president, since he wanted to use government resources and his authority over government officials to benefit his campaign. He added that as president, Karzai was flown around the country by the United States-led coalition and that he used the escorted trips to campaign.
A large number of candidates are expected to register for the election. Karzai won from a field of 18 in 2004, carrying more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. His popularity has fallen to less than 20 percent according to recent polls, yet he is probably still ahead of any opponents.
Two former finance ministers, Ashraf Ghani and Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, are expected to run, as might the former interior minister, Ahmed Ali Jalali. The former foreign minister, Abdullah, who goes by only one name, and First Vice President Ahmed Zia Masood, are possible candidates to lead the National Front.