Afghan president steps up political confrontation with opponents

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 7, 2009 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Stepping up a confrontation with his political opponents, President Hamid Karzai agreed Saturday to an August date for presidential elections but said he'll stay in office until then and not resign in favor of an interim administration.

The man widely expected to be tapped as the main opposition party's presidential candidate accused Karzai of trying to extend his term so that he could use his authority over the government to "rig the election."

"We have a clear view of his intentions," Abdullah Abdullah, who served as Karzai's first foreign minister, said in an interview with McClatchy.

The feud over the election date and Karzai's status could grow into a political crisis and further erode popular trust in the fledgling democracy just as U.S., international and Afghan troops are girding for an upsurge in fighting with the Taliban.

Karzai's five-year term ends on May 21, and under the Afghan constitution, the election should be held 30 to 60 days earlier.

Karzai had issued a decree advancing the election to next month, but the Independent Election Commission rejected the move this week and set the poll for Aug. 20, a date supported by the United States, other foreign governments and the United Nations.

The commission said more time is required for security preparations — an additional 17,000 U.S. troops are being deployed — international funds for the polls have not been disbursed, and wintery conditions in mountainous areas would prevent some people from casting ballots in April.

At a news conference in his heavily fortified palace, Karzai said he accepted the "national consensus" on the Aug. 20 date. But he rejected an opposition demand that an interim administration run the country between May 21 and the election, saying there is no such provision in the Constitution.

He said if the deadline for holding the vote is to be extended by four months, so too should his term in office.

"We have agreed on the Constitution and the Constitution says clearly that there should be a presidential election 30 days to 60 days before the ending of the president's working period," said Karzai, wearing a long black coat and a grey wool hat. "The president stays until the election date."

While hinting strongly that he would seek re-election, Karzai said that it was critical for the war-torn country's stability that the head of state's legitimacy is ensured until a successor is chosen.

"Whether I am a candidate or not a candidate, it should be clear whether the president has legitimacy or not between May and August 20," he said. "I want a legitimate government whether I am a candidate or not."

Karzai appeared to be offering a compromise to his opponents in which they would drop their objections to his remaining in office for three additional months in exchange for his agreement to the Aug. 20 poll date.

Many of Karzai's loudest critics are members of the lower house of Parliament, which passed a resolution earlier this year saying that he would not be recognized as president after May 21.

Abdullah, a leader of the opposition National Front, told McClatchy the opposition will continue insisting that Karzai step aside in favor of a "transitional mechanism" because he will try to use his office and the perks that go with it to fix the election.

"He thinks this is the only way for him to have an advantage, by using his authority over the process and over the institutions," said Abdullah, who served as foreign minister from 2001 to 2006. "If he is talking about a national consensus, does he think there is a national consensus for him to stay and rig the election?"

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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