KABUL – Afghan political leaders on Sunday accused President Hamid Karzai of trying to "sabotage" the country's presidential election after he asked the election commission to explore moving the vote up four months.
Karzai released a decree Saturday directing the commission to set an election date that adheres to the Afghan constitution, which calls for a vote 30 to 60 days before May 22, when Karzai's five-year term expires.
The commission previously set the vote for Aug. 20, saying an election could not be held sooner because of security concerns, heavy spring snows in the Afghan mountains and ballot distribution issues.
Lawmakers have said they would not recognize Karzai as president after May 21, meaning the country faces a potential constitutional crisis come spring.
But Afghan political leaders were not happy with Karzai's gambit to move up the vote, either.
The spokesman for the National Front, a group of opposition lawmakers, said it would be impossible to hold elections in the spring because of security, logistical and financial issues, but he called Karzai's move an attempt to "sabotage" the vote.
"If the president wanted to make this kind of decision, he could have done it five or six months ago. Why did he wait so long? Everybody knows it's not possible now," said spokesman Sayyid Agha Hussain Fazel Sancharaki.
Sancharaki noted that Afghan electoral law calls for candidates to declare their candidacies 75 days before an election, and that moving up the date of the vote would break that law.
Afghanistan's historic 2004 presidential election saw 18 candidates run, but many dozens of Afghan powerbrokers have signaled their interest in running this time around. One declared candidate, Abdul Qadar Emami Ghori, a lawmaker from Ghor, said Karzai's decree is a way to "cheat" his opponents.
"We don't have enough time to campaign, and some areas are still covered in snow," he said.
Echoing calls from other lawmakers, Ghori said Karzai should resign in May and the speaker of the upper house, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, should become caretaker president until August elections are held.
The election commission said Sunday it had not been officially notified of the request to explore moving up the vote.
"The commission considered all aspects of conducting free and fair elections in the country with the participation of a large number of people, and it announced that the soonest possible date was the 20th of August," Zekria Barakzai, deputy chairman of the Independent Election Commission, said.
"We are waiting for an official letter from the president's office to react to this," he said, adding that commission members would discuss the issue in the coming days.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement Saturday saying it believes August elections were "the best means to assure every Afghan citizen would be able to express his or her political preference in a secure environment."
International monitors have said it would be difficult if not impossible to hold valid elections during the March-April timeframe because of security concerns, bad weather and logistical issues like the distribution of ballots.
It was not immediately clear if Karzai's decree was political posturing to counter demands from parliament or if he thought elections would actually be moved up.
Waheed Omer, a government spokesman, said Karzai's decree asks the electoral commission to set a new date "that hopefully adheres to the constitution."
Afghanistan continues to be plagued by militant attacks and suicide bombers since a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban's hard-line Islamist regime from power in 2001. The Taliban insurgency has strengthened in recent years, gaining more control over southern regions, and last year was the deadliest for U.S. troops since the invasion.
Election officials said they agreed to hold the election after additional international forces arrived. President Barack Obama recently announced that 17,000 additional U.S. troops would deploy to Afghanistan this year, and U.S. officials have said they would arrive in time to help secure the election.