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.
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."
The first cracks in the opposition appeared when Muhammad Fahim, an influential Tajik warlord, broke ranks with other Tajik leaders and professed his support for Karzai. In return, Karzai chose Mr. Fahim as one of his two running mates.
The move was widely criticized by human rights groups, as Mr. Fahim has been accused of repeated human rights violations, which he denies. Karzai's second vice-presidential candidate, Karim Khalili, has also been accused of such abuses.
Karzai may be distributing key government posts to entice other opposition members. For example, sources in the Afghan government say that Mr. Jalali, a leading contender, may be granted the position of national security adviser in return for pulling out of the race.
Candidates may be accepting such positions only because they are fighting an uphill battle to begin with, says Mr. Rahmani. The Afghan elections will not be like their Western counterparts, with cross-country campaigning and stump speeches. Potential candidates cannot even access large parts of the country, because they remain outside government control.
Moreover, the kingmakers here are the local and regional powerbrokers – tribal leaders, warlords, religious figures. To win the presidency, a candidate must earn the support of such players – something the incumbent president is in a unique position to do.
"The government officials, the chiefs of police of each province, the shuras [local governing councils], and many leading mullahs will all support Karzai," says Mr. Rahmani. Karzai appointed many of these figures, and many others are connected to the president through patronage networks, which he has had years to build while in office.
Karzai is an unpopular leader here, but most people have very little connection to Kabul and are likely support whomever their community, tribal, ethnic, or religious leaders do.
Karzai's main challenge: low turnout
Karzai's biggest challenge might not come from other candidates, but from a low voter turnout. Many Afghans in the south and east, where the government wields little control, fear reprisals from insurgents if they vote. The Taliban – whose presence is strongest in those regions – have vowed to disrupt polls.
The government is recruiting an additional 15,000 police – bringing the total 100,000 – to guard the nearly 7,000 polling centers across the country.
The US and other Western nations are also injecting more than 20,000 soldiers into the country this summer, partly to help secure the polls.
Both Western and Afghan officials fear that a low turnout could damage the legitimacy of the government and hamper the country's fledgling democracy,. The government has been unable to quell persistent reports that it has been inflating voter rolls to give the appearance of a high turnout.
On Monday, the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Sima Samar, said she was concerned about "possible serious fraud" in the voter registration process, which culminated early this year.
Some conservative Pashtun provinces reported very high female voter registration numbers, even though women in those areas are often not allowed to leave the home. In some cases, men registered on behalf of women, creating a large number of "phantom voters."
There are also reports that local powerbrokers are paying people to register more than once, in order to eventually stuff the ballot. In December, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, a nongovernmental organization, found that multiple registrations of single person were seen in 40 percent of the registration centers.