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Dispute Over Timing of Afghan Vote Turns Messy

Conflict Raises Concern About Prospects for Besieged Democracy

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 5, 2009; Page A10

KABUL, March 4 -- A deepening power struggle over the date for upcoming presidential elections is exposing the underside of politics in Afghanistan and raising questions about the viability of a crucial transition for this struggling, Western-backed democracy.

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The conflict pits President Hamid Karzai, who hopes to win reelection after seven years in power, against an array of rivals eager to see him dethroned at any cost, and against members of an independent election commission whose desire to postpone the polling is supported by the United States, the United Nations and NATO.

It also leaves unresolved the critical question of who will lead the country during the summer months, when the Islamist Taliban insurgency is expected to intensify its attacks and thousands of American troops will arrive. Karzai's term ends in May, and elections are currently scheduled for August.

Karzai, 51, once perceived as a charming leader and famous for wowing tribal elders and international conferences, has grown increasingly unpopular and remote as his government becomes tarred as weak and corrupt. In recent months, he has taken to lashing out at the U.S.-led NATO forces that battle the Taliban and help prop up his government.

Now, he is crossing swords with the election commission he once appointed, resisting its decision to postpone elections from spring to late summer even though officials and observers widely agree that bad weather, poor security and other factors make it virtually impossible to hold credible polls this spring.

On Wednesday, the commission announced it was sticking to its earlier plan to hold the presidential election Aug. 20, defying a decree issued by Karzai last week that effectively ordered the polls held before he is scheduled to leave office in May. Critics say Karzai's support for the earlier date is designed to deprive opponents of the time they need to campaign across a country where the rough terrain makes travel difficult, and where few politicians besides Karzai can boast nationwide name recognition. Karzai, meanwhile, would be able to campaign while enjoying the full advantages of incumbency.

"We know the election date is a hot potato," commission chairman Azizullah Ludin said at a news conference. "Everyone in the world is watching this election carefully. We want it to be acceptable to the people and to international norms." Under current circumstances, he added, "the implementation of this decree is not possible."

In a sign of international concern over the Afghan election crisis, the State Department and the U.N. special representative here issued swift statements welcoming the election commission's reaffirmation of its election date decision. "The holding of elections is of paramount importance for consolidating democracy in Afghanistan," said Kai Eide, the U.N. representative.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said U.S. officials called on Afghan leaders to find a constitutional way to "ensure the continuity, legitimacy and stability of the government" between May and August.

The Obama administration has taken a much cooler view of Karzai than the Bush administration, which paid relatively little attention to such problems as corruption and drug trafficking as long as the Kabul government was cooperating with the U.S. military in the war against terrorism. Obama, in contrast, has publicly described Karzai's government as corrupt, avoided speaking with him for weeks and finally confronted Karzai in a phone call about his frequent complaints over civilian casualties at the hands of coalition forces and air raids.

Technically, the election dispute is being couched in legal terms and polite language. Ludin said the commission respected Karzai's position, which follows the letter of the constitution, but he noted dryly that "there was silence for eight months" and then a sudden flurry of concern from Karzai's office over whether an August election would create a constitutional crisis by leaving the presidency in limbo for three months.

Politically, though, the knives are out. Some of Karzai's adversaries, a hodgepodge of former militia leaders, ethnic rivals and cabinet members who defected from his administration, once vehemently opposed delaying elections as an unconstitutional ploy for Karzai to extend his time in office. But late Wednesday, a group of them said they backed the commission's decision -- now that the president was on the other side.

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