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Afghanistan's divided opposition boosts Karzai's election bid

Though unpopular, the president has more national reach than the shrinking pool of contenders.

By Anand GopalCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 5, 2009

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (2nd r.) with one of his running mates, current vice-president Karim Khalili (r), speaks to the media after his registration to stand for re-election in Kabul May 4, 2009. Karzai officially registered on Monday to stand for re-election, and named current vice-president Khalili and former vice-president Mohammad Qasim Fahim as his two running mates.

Ahmad Masood/REUTERS

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Kabul, Afghanistan

Afghanistan's unpopular President Hamid Karzai just registered Monday for his reelection bid. But already, he looks poised to easily win the August polls, as leading contenders drop out of the race and others fail to form viable opposition tickets.

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The shrinking pool of candidates highlights how fractured the opposition remains against a well-advantaged incumbent.

Earlier this week Gul Agha Sherzai, a provincial governor popular among some Pashtuns – Afghanistan's largest ethnic group – announced he would quit the race. Mr. Sherzai has also found favor in Washington for his success as a provincial governor, though his warlord past has drawn criticism. He was seen as the one challenger to Karzai who could have captured part of the key Pashtun tribal vote.

Western and Afghan officials also say that Ali Ahmad Jalali, the former Interior Minister and another leading Karzai opponent, will drop his candidacy.

This leaves a sparse field of contenders for the August elections, with only two candidates left who have a national profile: Abdullah Abdullah, a former member of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and onetime foreign minister, who is associated with the Tajik ethnic group; and Ashraf Ghani, a US-based academic and former finance minister under Karzai.

Afghanistan's president, however, will almost certainly have to come from the Pashtun ethnic group, so Dr. Abdullah is widely considered to be an underdog. And analysts say that Mr. Ghani does not have support outside of the urban areas.

One individual with the name recognition to give Karzai a challenge is Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American and former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations. But he has not declared his intent to run.

“It might be tough to sell Khalilzad as an independent candidate, given his connections with the US,” says Waliullah Rahmani, head of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. “That might be dissuading him.”

"Everything points to an easy victory for Karzai," says Haroun Mir, director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, based in Kabul.

Many opposition figures, but no unity

US officials have been highly critical of the Karzai administration in recent years, accusing it of ineffectiveness and corruption. Many point to the failures of the government as one reason for the rise of the insurgency here. Officials in Washington were widely believed to be looking for another candidate to back, but the fractured opposition has been unable to agree on a figure to stand against Karzai.

Potential candidates met many times in recent weeks to try to form viable opposition tickets. All contenders have until Friday to register for the election.

"Unfortunately, we have been unable to come together," says candidate Ghani. "People did not want to set aside their [personal] ambitions to field a unified candidate."

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