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Candidates Begin to Emerge for 2004 Afghan Election - 2003-10-05

Afghanistan has yet to adopt a new constitution, but prospective national leaders are already emerging to contest elections planned for next year. While the country already has dozens of political movements, the most powerful can be broadly grouped into civilian parties and the parties of military commanders.

Afghanistan's political landscape is already beginning to take shape, even though no one knows yet what system of government will be adopted when the national constitutional council, or loya jirga, meets in December.

Transitional President Hamid Karzai has now thrown his hat into the ring, telling local reporters Sunday that he is putting together a new political movement.

"I have talked about this with some of my friends who support the honor of Afghanistan and want this country to stand on its own feet and have a certainty of vision," said Mr. Karzai. "I will work with them in this and will run as a candidate for the next elections."

Some Afghan leaders are criticizing the move. They fear the announcement could impact the coming loya jirga, especially since President Karzai will be allowed to appoint 50 of the council's 500 members.

Equally threatening is the fact that Mr. Karzai's supporters are also large in number, partly as a result of his backing by the Western powers who provide much-needed aid and assistance.

A number of political camps will likely back President Karzai's candidacy.

Among these are supporters of the former Afghan king, Zahir Shah, who have formed a party known as the Afghanistan National Unity Movement, who enjoy broad geographic and ethnic support.

Its deputy chairman, Abdul-Hakim Noorzai, says the royalist movement shares the president's ideology of democratic values and human rights. Their only difference is the royalists' desire for a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic.

Mr. Noorzai says he hopes to arrange for the party to join forces with President Karzai. "I will offer all my possibilities to him," he said. "I will try to find a common field to work together, because Karzai is a good man. ... We are the children of one family."

But while Mr. Karzai enjoys support from a number of Afghan political groups, one very powerful faction looks likely to oppose him - namely, the former commanders of the Northern Alliance, which joined with the United States in 2001 to overthrow the former religiously extreme Taleban regime.

The Northern Alliance has yet to formally announce its political intentions, but sources tell VOA they have already decided to form their own party and are now discussing who to put forward as a future candidate for national leader.

Possibilities could include former President Buruhuddin Rabbani and current Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, both considered top leaders of the alliance.

Supporters of the Northern Alliance say they deserve a strong voice in the future government, given their role in defeating the Taleban.

Many of its top members and political allies are also seen as heroes of the war against the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Critics say the movement includes warlords only interested in seizing power. The alliance members reject this, saying they are loyal to the democratic interests of the country.

Many in the Northern Alliance say President Karzai has unfairly side-lined them, pointing to his September reshuffling of the Defense Ministry, in which some of their members were fired.

But the alliance suffers from two key political weaknesses.

The first is that the country's new election laws, proposed by President Karzai, will ban members of the military from running for office. This could discourage some top Northern Alliance members from becoming candidates, as they will first have to resign from their military commands.

The second problem for the alliance involves the sore spot of Afghan politics: ethnic rivalry.

Although a number of different ethnic elements are being brought into the new Northern Alliance political movement, its leaders are primarily Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley.

Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, see this as a threat. They say that the former alliance commanders have enjoyed too large a role in the transitional government, even though President Karzai is himself a Pashtun.

"Whoever emerges, I hope he or she will believe that he or she is leading the entire nation, not just one segment of society," said Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, Afghanistan's central bank governor who also serves as leader of the Social Democratic Party, which is seen as a major political voice for the Pashtuns. "But the Pashtuns do feel that in the past 18 months or two years that they have not had their fair share in power or in economic resources, and I think it's a genuine grievance and it should be addressed."

Mr. Ahady said his party is currently considering whether to place their support behind President Karzai in a future election.

But they, like Mr. Noorzai's royalists, say the president has been slow in bringing security to the country.

Banditry, lax law enforcement and fighting between rival warlords plague Afghanistan. Remnants of the former Taleban regime are also carrying out a guerrilla insurgency in the south and east of the country.

As a result, many of Mr. Karzai's prospective allies say their support will depend on whether the president can convince them he will take a stronger hand in solving Afghanistan's security problem.