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Afghanistan: Unexpected Candidate Emerges In Presidential Race

Prague, 26 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The final day for presidential candidates to register for Afghanistan's 9 October elections was marked by the unexpected emergence of a possible rival to incumbent Hamid Karzai, the longtime favorite.

On the last day for registering candidates for Afghanistan's 9 October presidential elections, a political tempest has broken out.

Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim -- who was long expected to be named as Hamid Karzai's vice-presidential candidate -- has instead expressed support for another presidential hopeful: Yunus Qanuni, a member of the Northern Alliance. Qanuni's candidacy was also unexpected.

Karzai, the incumbent, officially announced his candidacy to the press today. "At 1530 [Kabul time], my Afghan brothers and I went to the independent election commission. We presented our registration forms for elections to the president and members of the commission," Karzai said.

Fahim's apparent change of political allegiance comes after reported tensions between the defense minister and Karzai.

Karzai on 25 July suddenly postponed a trip to Pakistan, officially because of the impending registration deadline.

But an article in "The New York Times" suggests the change in schedule may have had more to do with tensions in Karzai's political circle.

Besides handing in required forms and 10,000 signatures from eligible voters, all candidates for the presidency had to declare their two vice-presidential running mates today. Registration was extended until 2200 Kabul time (1830 Prague time).

Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, was expected to select current Defense Minister and Vice President Mohammad Fahim, an ethnic Tajik, as one of those running mates.

But Afghan law would require Fahim to resign from his current posts as vice president and defense minister in order to run on the Karzai ticket. This is something Fahim reportedly refused to do.

Karzai chose instead to name for his first vice-presidential nominee Ahmad Zia Masoud, the younger brother of legendary mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Masoud, who was assassinated in September 2001.

For his second nominee, Karzai named Hazara leader Karim Khalili.

Masoud is also the son-in-law of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani and recently served as Afghanistan's ambassador to Russia.

Karzai said Masoud was well-suited for an Afghanistan in transition. "For the future of Afghans, for the future of Afghan reconstruction, and a re-emerging Afghanistan -- for these reasons, we announce Mr. Akhmad Zia Masoud as first vice president," Karzai said.

According to "The New York Times," relations between Karzai and Fahim have grown increasingly tense. The paper reported that Fahim did not attend a usual Saturday morning meeting with Karzai and other cabinet members, and that generals from the Northern Alliance faction loyal to Fahim were called to Kabul and put on alert.

Tensions between the two had reportedly calmed by 25 July. But Qanuni's candidacy -- and Fahim's apparent refusal to join the Karzai ticket -- has raised speculation that Fahim may back Qanuni rather than Karzai.

Karzai expressed regret that Fahim would not share his ticket, but dismissed the existence of a larger rift: "We have fond memories of our dear and great brother, Marshal Fahim Khan. In the past 2 and 1/2 years, we have spent some very hard days together. I am sorry he is not with us in today's activities."

A political partnership between Qanuni and Fahim would represent a serious split in Karzai's political circle and could mean a strong blow to his reelection bid. But Karzai sought to downplay the significance of Qanuni's election bid.

"In regards to Mr. Qanuni's candidacy, he requested to be a candidate and sent me his resignation. I did not want to accept his resignation; we want him to stay with us as education minister. But he has made a decision, and because today Afghans in Afghanistan have the right to be a candidate, to vote, to be voted for, he is using his rights, and may God help him on the path he has chosen," Karzai said.

For his part, Qanuni -- who in the past has also served as interior minister -- today expressed concern about Afghanistan's political development in the three years since U.S.-led forces routed the Taliban militia.

"Recently, I have had concerns, because there have been some violations in the new constitution and in the Bonn Agreement, and what I had expected in the past have now been put at risk. This has prompted me to use my constitutional right to be able to serve my people. Thus, I have decided to run for president in Afghanistan's first elections," Qanuni said.

Another former Northern Alliance commander, ethnic Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum from the northern Mazar-i-Sharif area, declared his candidacy last week.

The general sounded like a politician when he spoke with a crowd in Mazar-i-Sharif that day: "We are waiting to listen to your ideas about what we should do and which direction to take. Your word is our word and your decision is our decision."

Dostum's support is limited to the northern areas of the country. His support base of mainly ethnic Uzbeks -- less than 10 percent of the country's population -- can deliver him only a limited number of votes.

But the Mazar-i-Sharif area has been Dostum's personal fiefdom since the days of the Soviet occupation and ongoing battles with rival paramilitary commanders in the region have shown that Dostum is not easily swayed by orders coming from Kabul.

Another presidential candidate is Latif Pedram, author, poet, and scholar, who recently returned to Afghanistan after living abroad for several years in self-imposed exile. Pedram has urged other writers not to vote for any candidates who supported the Taliban militia in the past and has also criticized the distribution of aid money in Afghanistan, saying northern areas had not received their fair share of those funds.

An ethnic Tajik, Pedram may appeal to the educated Dari-speakers in the country, but it is questionable how much support he could gather outside that group.

On a positive note, the UN said today that almost 8 million of the estimated 9 to 10 million eligible voters in Afghanistan have now registered. The UN said 41 percent of those registered voters were women.

(RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)