KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan officials on Thursday set Aug. 20 as the date for the nation’s presidential election, starting the clock on a campaign that will be waged against the backdrop of an increasingly violent insurgency and rising domestic discontent.
President Hamid Karzai, first installed by the United States after the fundamentalist Taliban movement was toppled seven years ago, is widely viewed as the front-runner, although he has not formally declared his candidacy and his popularity has plummeted in the past year. Karzai’s relationship with his one-time Western patrons also has grown tense.
Karzai, who was elected in 2004 to the post he already held, has an edge over those who have declared their interest in running, but it is not known how he might fare if a well-known figure such as Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, were to enter the race.
The Afghan Constitution mandates that the election be held before the president’s term expires May 22. But the country’s perilous security situation has made meeting that deadline next to impossible, said Azizullah Lodin, who serves as chairman of the Independent Election Commission.
To avoid a power vacuum, lawmakers are expected to approve a temporary extension of Karzai’s authority or to appoint a caretaker government. Although some of Karzai’s opponents complained about the delay, international bodies including the United Nations supported the timetable.
As many as 30,000 additional U.S. troops are to arrive in Afghanistan in coming months. Lodin described that influx as a factor in the timing of the election.
The campaign comes amid a reappraisal of U.S. policy in Afghanistan by the Obama administration, which has put Karzai on notice that tougher demands will be placed on him. The Afghan leader reportedly had a stormy encounter with Vice President Joe Biden, who paid a preinaugural visit to Afghanistan.
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