Karzai moves up election date, challenging opposition

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai stepped up a confrontation with his opposition Saturday, ordering this year's presidential election to be moved up by at least three months despite the top election official's concerns that insufficient preparation time, funds and international forces could render the results illegitimate.

Karzai's decree may also intensify tensions with the United States, which backed an Independent Election Commission decision scheduling the vote for Aug. 20 so that an additional 17,000 U.S. troops could be deployed to bolster security.

Some 60,000 troops from the United States and 40 other countries are currently helping Afghan security forces battle the al Qaida-backed Taliban insurgency, and getting reinforcements in place within the next three months presents Washington and its NATO allies a huge challenge.

A vote that is not seen as free and fair could deal a serious blow to the Obama administration's emerging strategy for blunting the insurgency, which relies in part upon rebuilding sagging popular trust in a political system plagued by corruption and incompetence.

"There are concerns about the legitimacy of this vote," said a Western official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The election would be the second democratic presidential contest held since the 2001 U.S. intervention that toppled the Taliban regime.

Karzai said in his decree that the election commission should hold the contest according to the Afghan constitution, which requires that the vote be set within 30 to 60 days of the end of his five-year term on May 21.

The decree did not cite a specific date.

The election commission should "make essential arrangements to ensure the conduct of a transparent, fair, free, general, secret and direct ballot election", Karzai said.

The commission last month announced the Aug. 20 date. It said time was needed to allow deployment of the additional U.S. troops and complete the complicated logistical preparations, which include delivering balloting materials to remote areas now blocked by snow.

But the main opposition party, the National Front, objected, contending that the commission's decision would allow Karzai to remain in office illegally for four months. It demanded that the date be moved up or that Karzai resign in favor of an interim government.

Hakim Asher, a spokesman for the president, said that Saturday's announcement "showed that the president clearly respected the constitution."

The decree, however, essentially called the National Front's bluff because the party has not yet selected its presidential nominee, nor has it had time to organize its campaign.

Moreover, Karzai, who has made it clear that he intends to seek re-election, would have the advantages of incumbency, like his security detail and helicopters, to advance his campaign.

"This is a line in the sand," said the Western official of Karzai's order.

Karzai's decree "puts the opposition in a difficult position," conceded Abdul Sattar Murad, a senior National Front leader who has been involved in screening potential presidential candidates.

Karzai's announcement, issued after consultations with election officials, parliamentarians, religious leaders and legal experts, came despite a warning by the head of the election commission, Azizullah Lodin, that a contest held earlier than Aug. 20 might be considered illegitimate.

Lodin told McClatchy on Friday that he cautioned Karzai at a meeting on Tuesday that security would be inadequate to prevent disruptions by the Taliban and that the commission has not yet received the $224 million required to fund the election from the international community.

He said he also told Karzai that lingering snow would prevent some voters from reaching polling stations.

"I think the legitimacy of the election would be in question in a normal situation," he said.

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