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Even With Afghan Presidential Vote Delay, Race Already Taking Shape

Potential challengers to President Hamid Karzai now have three more months to prepare.
Potential challengers to President Hamid Karzai now have three more months to prepare.
His formal title may be president, but to many Afghans the ruler living in Kabul's Arg Palace is still "bacha" or "padshah" -- "king" in Pashto and Dari, respectively. But even after the announcement that the presidential election will be delayed by several months, dozens of potential candidates have already unofficially announced their intention to dethrone Hamid Karzai.

The presidential polls, following a decision by the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, will now be held on August 20. Under the Afghan Constitution, they were to take place a month before Karzai's term expires on May 22, but a loophole allowing for postponement in the event of inadequate security will give the incumbent at least three more months in office.

Farid Afghanzai, who heads the external-relations department of the Election Commission, says 4 million new voters have been added to the 12 million on the rolls for the last presidential election in 2004. And voter registration in the four insurgency-plagued southern provinces of Kandahar, Oruzgan, Helmand, and Nimroz began just last week.

Despite some opposition calls for the elections to be held in spring as originally planned, preparations that were already in full swing -- such as voter registration -- will simply be extended, and potential newcomers to the presidential office will have more time to get their names out.

Wide Range Of Candidates

A number of presidential hopefuls have already unofficially begun their campaigns both at home and abroad. Sources tell RFE/RL that 14 of them have spent time in the United States lobbying U.S. officials in Washington and courting members of the Afghan diaspora in Virginia and California.

Election Commission representative Afghanzai says that anyone who wants to officially join the race "should be Afghan and should only possess Afghan citizenship. They should be Muslim and must have Afghan parents."

Potential candidates also need to provide copies of 10,000 voter-registration cards to show popular support.

A majority of the known contenders are former and current senior members of the Karzai cabinet who can meet those conditions. However, a doctor in the Czech Republic, a magazine publisher in Germany, and an Afghan satellite television anchor in California might find them challenging.

In what he calls "a remarkable learning experience," a former World Bank executive and finance minister, Ashraf Ghani, has spent the last two years laying the groundwork for a presidential run by meeting with voters across the country.

Ghani has been quoted as saying he is "seriously considering" entering the contest, because he feels the Karzai government has lost its legitimacy. "We need a government that reflects our aspirations and in turn is based on our capabilities and desires and is accountable," he told RFE/RL recently.

Another former Karzai cabinet colleague is holding his cards close to his chest. Former Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali has said that "I am weighing my options" and he would make a decision soon.

Jalali, who is currently a distinguished professor at the Near East South Asia Center of Washington's National Defense University, sheds some light on those options. "I am trying to see if I can make a difference, if I can enlist the support of people and relevant groups in Afghanistan," he says. "Because in Afghanistan, you have to have a very good team and also support of people who can make -- bring changes in order to make a difference."

U.S.-Backed Candidate

Potential candidates may seek to cash in on the growing perception that there is a widening gulf between President Karzai and the new U.S. administration.

South Asia expert Marvin Weinbaum acknowledges that the mood in Washington appears to be swinging against Karzai, but he also notes that "the U.S. recognizes that any overt support of a candidate probably would be counterproductive to that candidate's chances in Afghanistan."

"People here in Washington are taking careful note of the fact that Karzai both is saying things which are undermining our mission in Afghanistan, and at the same time that there is growing opposition to him within Afghanistan," Weinbaum says. "[The] question is: Will the various candidates be able to get United States support in opposing Karzai?"

Weinbaum suggests that Washington now wants to back an open political process and let the Afghans decide who they want as their next leader. "Still, many people in Afghanistan believe that the United States, in spite of everything, stands with Karzai," he says. "We have to -- in a subtle way -- be able to suggest that we are not committed to one person. But that we want to see an open political process, in which, a consensus candidate can emerge."

That is exactly what many Karzai opponents are looking for back in Kabul. Lawmaker Ramzan Bashardost, once a minister in Karzai's cabinet, is now a leading Karzai critic who long ago announced his intention to run against him. He says that the international community appears to be backing open elections in Afghanistan. And that, he thinks, bodes well for his country.

"The only way for the salvation of Afghanistan are free and fair elections. The people of Afghanistan are aware and they are conscious [of their rights] and they possess [political] wisdom," Bashardost says. "They know what is in their interests and their interests are not in conflict with those of the international community, America in particular."

Although Karzai himself has yet to officially announce his presidential bid, his supporters are confident that, based on his past achievements, he will make a strong case before the Afghan electorate when it heads to the ballot box.

Karzai spokesman Hamayun Hamidzada recently reiterated the president's support for a democratic process. "It's up to the people of Afghanistan to decide, who should represent them and who should be their leaders," he told RFE/RL.

Afghan are hoping to see intense campaigning in the spring and summer, but as the snows melt, they are also concerned about a sharp spike in violence.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Helena Malikyar, Asmatullah Sarwan, and Hamid Mohmand contributed to this report
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.