An Afghan woman is assisted by an election official as she gives details to obtain her voter registration card at a voter registration centre in Kabul on May 26, 2013. (SHAH MARAI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Voter registration is underway, the presidential election date is set for April 5, and politicians are forming coalitions to discuss platforms, policies and candidates. But despite these signs of democracy in action, one nagging question lingers in the air like a dark, persistent cloud.

Is President Hamid Karzai ready to give up power, as the constitution requires, or is he determined to find a way to keep it, whether by outright intervention in the electoral process or by installing an ally who will keep him close to the palace he has occupied for more than a decade?

Karzai and his aides have sought to reassure the anxious nation and its international backers that he will abide by the law and leave office on schedule. A successful election — meaning one relatively free of fraud and violence — is considered crucial to ensuring Afghan stability as international troops begin withdrawing next year.

“Nothing should hinder the elections,” Karzai declared at a conference here recently, adding that Afghanistan, which has been whipsawed between communist, warlord and Islamist rule since the 1980s, should not have to undergo political “experiments” every few years. “The constitution should be implemented and the elections held on time,” he said.

The president urged the country’s political groups to unite behind a few viable candidates, and he vowed to accept the winner. “He will be sitting in the chair where I am sitting now,” Karzai said. “If he seeks consultation, I will go with respect and honor to offer him advice. Otherwise, I will be sitting at home quietly.”

Yet doubts persist, and speculation continues that Karzai, who narrowly won reelection in 2009 in a vote that was tainted by allegations of fraud, will find a way to manipulate next year’s vote or even replace it with a tribal gathering that could decide to keep him in office. Some critics say he fears being held accountable for official corruption; others say he believes he is indispensable.

The greatest danger, analysts and diplomats here said, is that if the elections do not produce a credible government, it will leave the nation adrift and strengthen the hand of the Taliban and other insurgents who have benefited from public alienation from the state, just as the great bulk of Western military forces are leaving for good.

One source of critics’ ammunition is that Karzai, despite his rhetorical support for the election process, has either opposed or delayed several electoral reforms that would have helped guarantee a fair process, including an electronic voter ID card. He also has not named new members to the national election commission, which was accused of favoritism in 2009.

“Increasingly, people don’t believe Mr. Karzai is willing to let the office go,” said Ahmad Nader Nadery, director of the nonprofit Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit and an official of the independent Free and Fair Election Foundation. “Why is he not naming a new commission chairman? Why is he not supporting a new electoral law? People compare his rhetoric with his lack of support for reforms, and that creates doubt.”

Karzai has dominated Afghan politics since 2002, when he was named the country’s transitional leader at a U.N. conference after the fall of the Taliban. He has since won two elections, benefiting from name recognition, a fractious opposition and his ability to offer governorships and ministries to allies.

This time, the race could be wide open, and the field of likely candidates includes several of Karzai’s former and current cabinet ministers, an array of Afghan American technocrats, a women’s rights activist in the national legislature, and Karzai’s brother Qayum, a longtime U.S.-based businessman.

Qayum Karzai’s candidacy, which would provide the most obvious sinecure for the departing president, is being promoted by a second brother, Mahmoud Karzai, a wealthy investor who also has U.S. ties. He and a team of supporters have drafted a platform that includes promoting foreign investment, fighting official corruption and revamping stalled peace talks with the Taliban.

“Our movement’s candidate is Qayum, but whether he will announce he is running is a different issue,” Mahmoud Karzai said in an interview at his home here last month. He criticized Hamid Karzai’s government, saying it had “used people to enrich the executive,” and said that if Qayum wins,” it will put the future of Afghanistan on an international standard.”

In contrast to that opaque dynastic scenario, a wide assortment of political parties and leaders have formed pre-election umbrella groups with names such as the Committee on Consensus and the Cooperation Council. Their goal, they say, is to make the upcoming election a watershed in Afghanistan’s evolution from a system of power based on personality, ethnicity and force to a more modern democratic system based on parties and ideology.

The main problem with this idealistic view is that there are far too many large egos in the room: men who have led militias and clans, ethnic empires and religious movements, ministries and banks. Even the most enthusiastic participants admit that in the end, things may devolve into the usual backroom slugfest over who will actually run.

“There are 23 political parties and alliances in our group, and we are moving in steps,” said Moeen Marastial, a top official of the recently formed Rights and Justice Party, which opposes Hamid Karzai. “First we form a national team, then we agree on a national program, and then we choose national candidates. I have to say that this third step will be very difficult,” he added, “because everyone will say, ‘I’m the one.’ ”

Taking a pad of paper and a pen, Marastial attempted to diagram the complex politics and tenuous relationships within his group, a hodgepodge of unlikely allies that range from former militia leaders to women’s organizations. After 15 minutes, the paper was full of loops and arrows and question marks — a perfect illustration of the fluid state of post-Taliban politics in Afghanistan.

Like other prominent Afghans who defected from Karzai’s government, Marastial expressed bitter disappointment in the president and said he was convinced that Karzai will try to remain in control, either by engineering the victory of an ally or by interfering more directly in the polls.

He is still not ready for elections. He still wants to be the key person five or 10 years from now,” Marastial said. “Our only hope to prevent this is if we remain united, go through the process in an orderly way and choose candidates on merit. Otherwise, I don’t think we are going to see a real election take place at all.”