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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.

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Mir adds, "Moreover, [Karzai] is aware that after May he may not hold power, which would rob him of the incumbent's advantage."

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Some potential candidates have yet to formally declare their intent to run, let alone plan a campaign, and a few leading ones who live abroad have not even moved back to Afghanistan. "This decision does not accord with the democratic rules of the game," says leading contender Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister under Karzai. "We are supposed to guarantee free and fair elections."

The IEC has yet to announce whether it accepts Karzai's decree. If the IEC insists on an August date, it is unclear whether it or the president would have a final say on the matter. There is also no agreed-upon mechanism to select a caretaker government for the summer months. This could create political instability, which would weaken an already frail Afghan government, analysts say.

Mir says that Karzai could use the pending uncertainty and confusion to his advantage. "He may be trying to strike a bargain with the opposition, where he will agree to an August date in return for being allowed to stay in power through the summer months."

Karzai's popularity has plummeted in recent months. Many Afghans accuse him of heading a corrupt and ineffective government. He also appears to be losing support in key international circles. Officials in Washington have made a number of very critical public statements, with President Barack Obama saying last year that Karzai should get "out of his bunker" and attend to his nation. Karzai, in turn, has lashed out against the US for causing civilian casualties and alienating Afghans.

Although Washington declines to publicly back a candidate, some in diplomatic circles say it has shifted allegiance away from Karzai. Other leading contenders who may have American backing include Mr. Ghani, the former finance minister and vocal Karzai critic; Ali Ahmed Jalali, the former interior minister under Karzai currently in the US; and Gul Agha Sherzai, a former warlord and governor of eastern Nangarhar Province, which the Americans have cited as a model province because of the steady pace of development there.

With rampant insecurity and a patronage system, campaigning here may consist solely of winning over powerbrokers such as tribal leaders and international backers. A recent poll by the US-based Asia Foundation found that nearly 65 percent of voters intended to follow the voting instructions of tribal leaders.

Given such a system, some observers and opposition candidates say the situation is tilted in Karzai's favor. As president, Karzai has established a strong network with many of the country's local powerbrokers, says Mir.

"If indeed elections are held in April," he says, "Karzai is convinced he can win."