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