KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s election commission began accepting nominations on Saturday for an August presidential vote, with opponents seen struggling to settle on a candidate that can oust President Hamid Karzai.
Afghanistan’s second democratic presidential election will be a defining test of progress this year in the country, where violence is surging despite the presence of 70,000 foreign troops, which is expected to rise to some 90,000 by election day.
“We have launched the nomination of presidential and provincial council candidates that will continue for two weeks,” deputy chief electoral officer Zekria Barekzai told Reuters.
Karzai, who has led the country since Taliban militants were driven from Kabul by U.S.-backed Afghan forces, is expected to stand again, but there is speculation about who he will include on his ticket as his two deputies.
High-profile figures thought to be contemplating a bid against Karzai include former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, former finance ministers Ashraf Ghani and Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, and Nangarhar Province governor Gul Agha Sherzai.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations under President George W. Bush, has also visited Afghanistan recently, raising speculation he could launch a bid.
The two-week deadline means that the field of candidates should finally be clear just as Karzai returns from Washington for a summit with the U.S. and Pakistani leaders in early May.
Opposition hopes of unseating Karzai were dealt a setback this week when the main opposition National Front said one of its founders, former Deputy President Mohammad Qasim Fahim, had deserted the group to back the president.
Several of the possible candidates are believed to hold citizenship of other countries such as the United States. Barekzai said they would be expected to present documents showing they had given up their foreign citizenship in order to stand.
Candidates must be 40 years old and have no record of human rights violations or war crimes, although rights groups say there is no practical mechanism to bar former warlords from standing.
The Afghan constitution says the presidential elections should be held before May 21, but security concerns, the budget and the difficulty of campaigning in spring prompted the election commission to put the date back on August.
The United States now has almost 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, expected to reach 68,000 by the end of the year, with most arriving between now and the election to reinforce violent areas in the south.
Other Western countries have contributed about 30,000 troops to a NATO force under U.S. command.
Reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Peter Graff and Bill Tarrant