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Karzai draws criticism for early election call

Moving the presidential vote up to spring from August could undercut opponents, who still have to plan their campaigns.

By Anand GopalCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 2, 2009

Ready or not: A vendor in Kabul sells a picture of President Karzai, whose call for early elections has drawn criticism.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP

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Kabul, Afghanistan

President Hamid Karzai's declaration Saturday that Afghan presidential elections should be moved up to April or May has aggravated already tense political divisions in this increasingly unstable country.

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The unpopular leader's decree is at odds with the Independent Election Commission (IEC), which has set Aug. 20 as the date for the polls. The United States reiterated its support Saturday for the later date – a preference shared by other candidates, who say they need more time to plan a campaign.

Karzai's presidential mandate legally ends in May, which could leave Afghanistan without a head of state for three months if polls were held in August. The president's supporters say an earlier vote is necessary to avoid such a scenario. Critics say, however, that more than two months are needed to prepare for the elections.

"We are headed for a confrontation," says Haroun Mir, head of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies based in Kabul. "This could be the start of a crisis of legitimacy, which would be dangerous in a country mired in instability."

According to the Afghan Constitution, elections must be held 30 to 60 days before May 22, when Karzai's term expires, but the IEC declared that elections this spring would be impossible. Large parts of the south and east are not under government control, making voter registration and voting difficult. Insurgents, who do not view the Afghan government as legitimate, have vowed to disrupt the polls.

Washington will be deploying at least 17,000 troops to the country by August, whom officials hope will be able to provide security for the polls. But most of them will not arrive by May.

A statement Saturday from the US State Department said "that elections in August... [are] the best means to assure every Afghan citizen would be able to express his or her political preference in a secure environment."

The government also lacks a funding mechanism for holding polls and relies primarily on international donors. IEC deputy chief Zakria Barakzai says that $223 million will be required. "Till now we have $100 million pledged, which means we need more time to procure funds."

Karzai's supporters defend the earlier date, saying it is in line with the Constitution, and that the country should have a strong head of state during the crucial summer months, when violence normally soars.

However, some analysts say that behind Karzai's decree lies political maneuvering. A spring election disarms the other candidates and gives Karzai a natural advantage, says policy analyst Mr. Mir. "Karzai wants to have the advantage of an incumbent when he runs. No one else is ready for this election."

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