Afghan President Hamid Karzai faces increasing opposition to maintaining power as elections approach. (Photo: Shah Marai / AFP / Getty Images)
Throughout Afghanistan's history, the handover of power has been anything but peaceful - and many observers worry this year will be no different.
At issue is the confrontation between President Hamid Karzai and his opponents over whether he should step down in May as mandated by Afghanistan's Constitution.
Karzai says he should remain in office to ensure stability during a time of war until presidential elections - delayed by bad weather, funding shortfalls and insecurity - are held in August. But his opponents say Karzai's real motive is to manipulate the polls so he can win a second term.
There are advantages to being an incumbent president in a democratic country, and Afghanistan is no exception.
For one thing, incumbents are guaranteed the spotlight, such as an address Karzai delivered at the recent opening session of the Afghan parliament. He laid out his administration's accomplishments not only for lawmakers, but for millions of viewers on state-run television.
But opponents, such as lawmaker Daoud Sultanzoi, say it's what Karzai is doing behind the scenes that makes it necessary for the president to leave office before the Aug. 20 elections.
"All the apparatus of his government and ... American taxpayer money is being abused to rig this election," says Sultanzoi, one of a growing number of people likely to run against Karzai this summer.
Sultanzoi and other critics say Karzai has filled tens of thousands of government jobs across Afghanistan with people who will campaign for him. And they fear his handlers will tap into hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid that flow into government coffers without adequate oversight.
Karzai's office dismisses such claims as nonsense.
"They would like to make ... allegations, and they are free to do that, and there is a freedom of expression guaranteed in this country, but I would suggest they should try to back them with facts and truth, and not just talking," says Humayun Hamidzada, Karzai's spokesman.
Fears of Unfair Election
Still, the mounting allegations worry some Western officials. During a briefing last week to the United Nations Security Council, the U.N.'s top envoy in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, suggested opposition fears of an unfair election this year are well-founded.
Eide and others say a rigged poll - or even the perception of one - will play into the hands of the insurgents seeking to drive a wedge between Afghans and their government.
Abdullah Abdullah was Karzai's first foreign minister and is likely to run against him as the main opposition candidate in the upcoming elections.
"I think it requires a sense of responsibility of all leaders in the country, including the president himself, to lay the right foundation for the future, so the people are not losing their hopes [in] the process," Abdullah says.
Delayed Election, Power Vacuum
The former foreign minister and others say that's why Karzai must step down on May 21, the date the Afghan Constitution stipulates as the end of the presidential term. They say it would create a more level playing field for all candidates and end concerns that Karzai is brokering backroom deals, illegal or otherwise, to win re-election.
Karzai's opponents say the fact that polls are being delayed several months is no problem. Parliament, the Supreme Court and other Afghan institutions can fill the void until a victor is declared.
But Karzai isn't going quietly. Hamidzada says the president is determined to ensure a peaceful transition of power - especially now, when the country is under attack by the Taliban and other militants. And that, Hamidzada says, includes directly handing power over to whomever is elected on Aug. 20 - and not a caretaker or interim government.
Hamidzada says the president will ask the Afghan Supreme Court to decide the issue.
Deal-Making May Be Necessary
But experts say the debate is unlikely to end there. John Dempsey heads the Kabul office of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
If the Supreme Court issues a decision, for example, in Karzai's favor, Dempsey says parliament will certainly not recognize the court's authority to do so. And that, he says, begs the question: Who does have that authority?
Some Afghan officials say privately the issue is likely to be settled by the same type of backroom wheeling and dealing that Karzai critics complain about.
They say if Karzai agrees to give up some powers, like issuing decrees and making high-level appointments, the opposition will likely agree to his staying in office until the elections.