KABUL — He has become the president who won’t leave the palace.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s five-year term in office expired last week, but he’s conducting business as usual. Eager to make history as a peacemaker and further his agenda of reform and modernization, he is holding back-to-back meetings on boosting exports or upgrading the fetid Kabul River.
Ghani’s position has been reinforced by a Supreme Court decision extending his tenure until an election is held in September. But opponents charge that he is inviting “chaos” at a time of aggressive insurgent attacks and growing political divisions, and they accuse him of using public patronage and funds to bolster his campaign for reelection.
The 70-year-old president entered office in 2014 in an awkward power-sharing deal with his former top rival, brokered by U.S. officials after a fraud-plagued, inconclusive election.
A group of a dozen presidential candidates say Ghani is adding yet another period of questionable legitimacy to his tenure. They have called on him to resign and let a caretaker or interim government oversee the polls. They have also threatened to stage street protests if he refuses.
Ghani’s governing partner, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, and his former national security adviser are planning to run against him and have insisted that he step down. The president, in turn, has brought a variety of new figures into his camp, including an ex-intelligence chief who was once his sharpest critic and is now his running mate.
“We are all united in our hatred for Ghani. We don’t want to see violence, but he needs to go,” said Ahmad Wali Massood, a member of the group of candidates that has called for protests if the president refuses to leave. “We need someone who can protect the election process, an independent national figure. At this point, anyone would be better than Ghani.”
Supporters of the president say his intent is the opposite of chaos: to provide stability at a time of deep public anxiety about the future, with elections postponed again, a new parliament consumed by ethnic feuding and peace talks with the Taliban in limbo.
Even facing chronic health problems, Ghani’s aides say, the former World Bank official has worked tirelessly to improve government, curb corruption and seek peace.
One year ago, he initiated a cease-fire that led to soaring hopes for reconciliation after three days of cordial interactions among Taliban fighters and civilians. Last month, he convened a national assembly of 3,000 people and pledged to pursue their unanimous call for an end to conflict.
“It’s an election season, and political actors want to score points against him, but the government has to keep delivering security and services,” said Nader Nadery, a senior aide to Ghani. He noted that Ghani recently told the new parliament he had no wish “to stay a single day more in office” without being reelected but had no choice after the national election commission postponed the poll.
The president’s spokesman, Haroon Chakhansuri, said in a statement that the Supreme Court is the highest legal authority and that any demand for a caretaker government is “extra-constitutional,” although he added that “we respect any group or individual’s right to peaceful protest.”
Ghani took office in with a far-reaching, reformist vision for Afghanistan’s future, but he has lost considerable popularity in the past year, with the economy stagnating and conflict continuing unabated. He has been sidelined from talks with the Taliban, who dismiss him as an “American puppet.”
Last month, Ghani and his aides tried to arrange a first meeting between a cross-section of Afghans and the Taliban in Qatar, but it collapsed over disagreements on the size and makeup of the Afghan delegation, which Taliban officials disparaged as a “Kabul wedding party.”
As the peace process has stagnated, Ghani’s relations with Washington also have soured despite their long-standing military partnership. The rupture deepened after one of Ghani’s closest aides publicly denounced the U.S.-led peace effort and its diplomatic point man, Zalmay Khalilzad, during a visit to Washington in March.
Afghans appear split on Ghani’s performance and ambitions. In recent interviews, many Kabul residents expressed frustration and worry, and some fretted that Ghani might be trying to extend his tenure indefinitely. A similar concern arose in 2009, when President Hamid Karzai stayed in office beyond his mandate amid chaotic elections.
“His presidency is against the law from now on, even for a single moment,” said Sayed Amin Arif, a retired government administrator. “He has achieved nothing and divided the people. It is his fault that we have not been able to hold elections on time. He should step down as soon as possible.”
But Abdullah Ahmadi, 24, a law student at Kabul University, said the president should remain until the election, saying there is “no other option.” Politicians who want a caretaker government are so divided along religious and ethnic lines, he added, “that they will never be able to form one.”
Whatever happens next, American and U.N. officials have insisted it is crucial for the September election date to hold. Otherwise, the poll would probably have to wait until spring, because heavy winter snows prevent voting in mountainous regions, and another delay would prolong a presidency that is already losing public confidence.
But some observers said they doubt that the election will be sufficiently credible. They say the that new election commission is struggling and that the decision not to use a biometric voter registration system will add to public mistrust. The results of October’s parliamentary election are still being contested amid accusations of fraud and manipulation.
“The commission is not ready, and the time frame is just too tight,” said Yousuf Rashid, director of the nonprofit Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan. He said the best solution would be to put in an acting government to oversee the poll. Ghani, he said, is thinking only about “his own future, how to win reelection and be a hero of peace.”
Rahmatullah Nabil, a candidate for president and a former national intelligence chief, said the political stakes are much higher now than five years ago, when then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry brokered the Ghani-Abdullah pact amid fears of a violent civil uprising.
Today, he said, “the Taliban are much stronger, the country is more ethnically divided, we have less American support and less regional sympathy. If we don’t stop this crisis in advance, whatever happens in this election is going to be challenged,” he said. “And this time nobody will listen to a John Kerry.”
Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.