KABUL (Reuters) - Opponents of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and ordinary Afghans criticized the president for failing to take part in a televised election debate on Thursday, saying he was scared to confront them head-on.
Karzai, a clear front-runner for the August 20 poll, had been due to take on rivals Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, but withdrew on the eve of the first debate of the campaign, saying more opponents and media outlets should have been involved.
Abdullah and Ghani, both former cabinet ministers under Karzai and seen as the only serious rivals in a field of 39 challengers, went ahead with the televised debate on the privately owned Tolo channel without Karzai.
The election is being fought against a backdrop of increased violence, with thousands of U.S. marines and British troops launching major operations against the Taliban in the south this month and civilian and military casualties at record levels.
“We are losing the Afghan people and they are going toward the enemy’s side,” said former foreign minister Abdullah.
“We cannot blame anyone one else for this other than this current government, the leader of which is unfortunately not here to answer to the people of Afghanistan,” he said, motioning toward an empty podium.
Karzai has not ruled out taking part in future debates.
Karzai has led Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted in 2001 by U.S.-backed Afghan forces.
He won Afghanistan’s first direct presidential vote in 2004.
An opinion survey by a U.S.-based group published in May gave Karzai a wide lead, with 31 percent support as the most popular choice for president.
Abdullah and Ghani both attracted only single-digit support.
Ghani, a former finance minister and high-ranking World Bank official, also criticized Karzai for not appearing.
He said if elected he would seek an agreement with U.S. and NATO-led forces about how long they would remain and seek to close the main prison for detainees used by the U.S. military at its sprawling airfield north of Kabul.
“When we make an agreement with the foreign forces it will be about how long they are to stay here and, within this framework, I am going to ask for the closure of the Bagram prison within 3 years,” Ghani said.
A U.S. military report released this week called for changes in both U.S. and Afghan prison systems to prevent Islamist radicalization behind bars in Afghanistan.
Afghans criticized Karzai’s record since the last election and close ties with Western backers, saying he had not done enough to improve security and Afghanistan’s devastated infrastructure and economy after almost 30 years of war.
“Karzai did not want to attend because he is afraid to answer to the people about what he’s done in the past five years ... he doesn’t have any positive answers,” said Habibullah Bahir, a Kabul University economics student.
Residents of southern Kandahar, Karzai’s home city and also the birthplace of the Taliban, crowded around television sets but were disappointed when the president failed to appear.
Despite his popularity in opinion polls, deteriorating security, especially in his power base in the south, could be Karzai’s biggest weakness. There are also concerns about endemic corruption and civilian casualties caused by foreign forces.
Additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Louise Ireland