Afghanistan's electoral authority has rejected President Hamid Karzai's early deadline for holding a presidential election, signaling a new phase in fierce bickering that could test the country's still-immature political institutions.
The Independent Election Commission had warned that continued violence, financing, and logistical obstacles stood in the way of spring elections, and reiterated those objections in dismissing the presidential decree of February 28.
Karzai spokesman Humayun Hamidzada has told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the president supports the commission's decision on the date of the election but notes there is no mention in the Afghan Constitution of a transitional or caretaker government before such a vote.
Hamidzada said the president has consulted with his aides and "will not stay in power even for one day without legitimacy. He will not scar his seven years of achievement, which he has brought to his nation. And he will not scar this achievement for one or two months of power."
Afghanistan has never seen a peaceful transfer of power in its modern history, and the specter of a prolonged political stalemate has sparked concerns that ongoing disagreements over the date of the next presidential election could give way to more destabilizing political conflict.
Afghans are particularly worried in light of the fact that political disputes in the past over power-sharing and transfers of power have spilled over into violence.
Critics and potential presidential competitors -- some of whom have pushed for a caretaker government to take over ahead of elections to settle a constitutional conundrum -- had argued for sufficient time to address security and logistical concerns and to allow Afghans to acquaint themselves with Karzai's rivals.
Amid talk of a potential constitutional crisis, election officials and others had stressed the importance of ensuring a level of participation among voters and political blocs alike that lent legitimacy to the vote.
"Our opinion has been that the Afghan elections couldn't be held [before August]," Independent Election Commission chief Azizullah Ludin told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan ahead of the commission's latest move, adding that the credibility of the next president is at stake. Ludin said the elections' "legitimacy is very important and their legitimacy will be compromised if they are held now."
Karzai's supporters claim his decree represented an effort to restore constitutional rule. But the opposition has wondered aloud whether Karzai can be defeated so long as he remains in office and accuse him of trying to steal the vote by leaving lesser-known aspirants with little time to campaign.
Although the constitution does not provide for an interim or transitional cabinet, Karzai's opponents have demanded such a handover after his term ends on May 21. Indeed, some observers claim Karzai's move was motivated by reluctance to hand over power to opponents in parliament ahead of the vote.
"His major motivation is that he wants to conduct elections while he still is in office so that he can influence the outcome of the election," claimed Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, a former finance minister under Karzai who is now a leading presidential contender. "And that certainly is not acceptable."
Sayid Fazel Sancharaki, a spokesman for the main opposition United National Front, alleged that by "trying to save his own political career, Karzai is dragging the country into an emergency situation."
But presidential spokesman Ahmad Ziya Siyamak said Karzai was in a no-win situation, since the opposition had already criticized any date -- early or late -- set for the elections.
Hashem Mohmand, the deputy director of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, offers his take on the crisis.
Many Karzai opponents seek comfort in perceptions that he is no longer the darling of Washington, which has no direct say but exerts considerable influence through its international leadership and continuing counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and the region.
Some experts read Karzai's push for an early vote as an attempt to outwit any U.S.-blessed efforts at removing him from power.
Another former finance minister and leading Karzai critic, Ashraf Ghani, suggested the president's decree on springtime elections was "illegal" and threatened to lead Afghanistan down the path of Zimbabwe-style "dictatorship."
"If he loves power so much that he is even ready to trample the law under his feet, we should not become part of [such an exercise] because this will only legitimize an illegitimate process," Ghani said. "It is not acceptable that we change the election date to the advantage of one individual. We have to act against the law, wisdom, logic, and what is possible -- and this is not acceptable."
A Kabul-based independent election watchdog, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, criticized Karzai's election timeline as flawed, too. He said so little time for preparations and campaigning "could severely harm the legitimacy, fairness, and transparency of the elections."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly talked to Karzai by telephone hours after he announced his decree to express Washington's concerns over the move.
The State Department said the date selected by the Afghan election commission would be the best time to hold elections. "The United States supports the underlying principles articulated by President Karzai and reiterates its view that elections in August, as proposed by the Independent Election Commission, is the best means to assure every Afghan citizen would be able to express his or her political preference in a secure environment," the State Department said in a statement on February 28.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Norias Nori, Asmatullah Sawrawn, Qadir Habib, and Hamid Mohmand contributed to this story.
* The third paragraph of this story was changed to accurately reflect comments made by Karzai's spokesman Humayun Hamidzada. Karzai did not say that he would not accept a transitional government, only that there is no mention in the Afghan Constitution of such a caretaker government.