KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai is trying to "wrongfoot" his opponents by demanding a presidential election be brought forward, and must be prevented from using his position to manipulate the poll, a rival has said.
"I will not participate in sham elections in April," presidential contender and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai said. "It would be legitimizing a Zimbabwe-type arrangement."
On February 28, Karzai made a surprise announcement that the poll should be brought forward to April from August 20, setting him at odds with his own election commission and with his Western backers, who see a meaningful early poll as almost impossible.
The call was seen as a ploy to show he respected a May 21 constitutional deadline to leave office -- but at the same time force his opponents, none of whom are remotely ready to stand in April, to ask the president to stay on.
The 59-year-old Ahmadzai, who has also worked for the World Bank and the United Nations and has widespread respect in the West, said he had decided to stand in August, adding that Afghans need time to debate the many challenges facing their nation.
He said Karzai was already using the machinery of state to give himself an unfair advantage in the election, with ministers actively supporting the president's campaign.
"This is a slippery slope we have to stop," he said.
The United States has already said it believes August would be a better time to hold an election in a secure environment.
In Brussels on March 2, NATO warned that an early presidential election in Afghanistan would have implications for security, and said it would be better able to protect the poll if it were held in August.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai said that the election date is an Afghan decision, but added: "The bottom line is that we will be able to provide more support and more security for an August election than we would for an earlier one."
U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan to try to secure the election in August against a powerful and growing Taliban insurgency. Bringing the poll forward would not give the troops time to arrive in the country.
The Taliban has denounced the democratic process as an "infidel system," and a former senior Taliban official said the movement would try to prevent the election taking place in swathes of the east and south of the country under its control.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, said ordinary people were already tiring of Western-style democracy, which had failed to bring peace.
"The Taliban will try to create obstacles about the holding of elections," the former Guantanamo detainee, now living under guard in Kabul, told Reuters. "But the Afghan people are not very interested in taking part in elections anyway."
Ahmadzai was more optimistic, saying there were signs of significant voter registration in some areas controlled by Taliban, evidence perhaps of some debate within the movement about whether to oppose the poll.
Much of the rest of the country could be secured given the political will, he said, adding that the biggest obstacle to a fair election was a "corrupt and criminalized" police force.
Other presidential contenders accused Karzai on March 1 of trying to create "chaos and disorder" to hold an unfair vote.
Almost no one believes an April poll is possible, especially because it would have to be organized during the harsh Afghan winter when many parts of the country are inaccessible.
But NATO said it was too early to comment on whether its 56,000-strong force in Afghanistan would be able to help secure an election in the next three to seven weeks.
Karzai is unpopular due to his failure to bring security and development, tackle corruption, and prevent civilian casualties in the U.S.-led war against the Taliban.
About half a dozen people have said they might run against Karzai, but no strong rival has yet emerged from the pack.
Ahmadzai, a formidable intellectual who might be popular in the West, remains an outside contender who is seen as lacking the domestic support and political clout to win.