The joint commission, which is run by the United Nations and Afghan officials, says 18 candidates will be on the ballot. The most prominent names include Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, former Education and Interior Minister Yunos Qanuni, and ethnic Uzbek militia commander General Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Zakim Shah, who heads the commission, said 115 legal and personal protests were filed against several of the candidates -- accusing them of murder, rape, looting, and running private militia forces. He said most of the complaints were directed against Dostum, Karzai's running mate Abdul Karim Khalili, and the ethnic Hazara candidate Mohammad Mohaqiq. Qanuni's candidacy has also been publicly criticized by other presidential hopefuls.
One candidate, Sayyed Abdul Hadi Dabir, said the election board is being timid in the face of the threats he said are posed by the militia leaders. Dabir received a round of applause from other candidates attending yesterday's announcement when he accused the electoral board of violating Afghanistan's election law.
"There are three persons whose names are on the list: General Dostum, who has several divisions of militias behind him; Mr. [Mohammad] Mohaqiq, who has thousands of armed men behind him; and Mr. Qanuni, who also has thousands of militia fighters as well as the entire Defense Ministry behind him," Dabir said. "How can you say that the election law was properly implemented? Where is the law?"
Andrew Wilder, a political analyst with the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, agrees that the failure of the electoral board to reject the candidacies of some militia commanders has increased the risk of voter intimidation in the provincial regions controlled by those commanders' private forces. "If the election commission doesn't feel they can take tough decisions and vote against a warlord," he said, "how can we expect the Afghan voter out in the villages and rural areas to make that decision?"
As a result, Wilder is revising his prediction that Karzai will easily win a majority of votes in the first round of the ballot. Wilder now predicts the election will be a close contest and that the chances of a second-round ballot between Karzai and another front-runner are very real.
"The credibility of the elections is now more important than ever. When this was just going to be a rubber-stamp and Karzai was expected to win with a large majority -- this [vote] was just to legitimize him -- if there were some flaws in the electoral process, it was not that significant. But if this becomes a close contest and the election is viewed to be flawed and the process flawed, then I think we could have a problem on our hands," Wilder said.
U.S.-backed Karzai remains the favorite to eventually win -- even after rejecting powerful Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim as his running mate.
Since then, Fahim has thrown his support behind Qanuni's candidacy. Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah also is supporting Qanuni. All three are members of the mostly ethnic Tajik Jamiat-e Islami faction and are from the Panjshir Valley. With their support, analysts say Qanooni is expected to be Karzai's strongest rival.
The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said he has received assurances from Fahim that his ethnic Tajik militia fighters will honor the democratic process. Nevertheless, fears abound that the political rivalries could turn violent. The remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan have vowed to disrupt the elections, further complicating the situation.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Kabul today on a one-day visit. He is rejecting the idea that Islamic militants battling U.S.-led coalition forces across southern Afghanistan will be able to derail the transition to democracy.
"They're going to fail, and [democratic transition] will very likely continue. They'll continue to try to go after soft targets. That is to say, they're not going to attack coalition forces head-on. But to the extent that they have opportunities, they will try to dissuade the Afghan people from moving forward towards a democratic state. And it's a tough part of the world. The people of Afghanistan are going to have to be tough to continue the success that's already being achieved," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld said efforts to establish democracy in Afghanistan also are threatened by criminal groups involved in the smuggling of heroin and other drugs produced in Afghanistan. But he said today that a "master plan" is being developed by coalition forces to combat that problem.