KABUL, Afghanistan — Voter registration is underway, the presidential election date is set for April 5, and politicians are forming coalitions to discuss platforms, policies and candidates. But despite these signs of democracy in action, one nagging question lingers in the air like a dark, persistent cloud.

Is President Hamid Karzai ready to give up power, as the constitution requires, or is he determined to find a way to keep it, whether by outright intervention in the electoral process or by installing an ally who will keep him close to the palace he has occupied for more than a decade?

Karzai and his aides have sought to reassure the anxious nation and its international backers that he will abide by the law and leave office on schedule. A successful election — meaning one relatively free of fraud and violence — is considered crucial to ensuring Afghan stability as international troops begin withdrawing next year.

“Nothing should hinder the elections,” Karzai declared at a conference here recently, adding that Afghanistan, which has been whipsawed between communist, warlord and Islamist rule since the 1980s, should not have to undergo political “experiments” every few years. “The constitution should be implemented and the elections held on time,” he said.

The president urged the country’s political groups to unite behind a few viable candidates, and he vowed to accept the winner. “He will be sitting in the chair where I am sitting now,” Karzai said. “If he seeks consultation, I will go with respect and honor to offer him advice. Otherwise, I will be sitting at home quietly.”

Doubts persist

Yet doubts persist, and speculation continues that Karzai, who narrowly won re-election in 2009 in a vote that was tainted by allegations of fraud, will find a way to manipulate next year’s election or even replace it with a tribal gathering that could decide to keep him in office. Some critics say he fears being held accountable for official corruption; others say he simply believes he is indispensable.

The greatest danger, analysts and diplomats here said, is that if the elections do not produce a credible government, it will leave the nation adrift and strengthen the hand of the Taliban and other insurgents who have benefited from public alienation from the state, just as the great bulk of Western military forces are leaving for good.

One source of critics’ ammunition is that Karzai, despite his rhetorical support for the election process, has either opposed or delayed several electoral reforms that would have helped guarantee a fair process, including an electronic voter ID card. He has also failed to name new members of the national election commission, which was accused of favoritism in 2009.

“Increasingly, people don’t believe Mr. Karzai is willing to let the office go,” said Ahmad Nader Nadery, director of the nonprofit Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit and an official of the independent Free and Fair Election Foundation. “Why is he not naming a new commission chairman? Why is he not supporting a new electoral law? People compare his rhetoric with his lack of support for reforms, and that creates doubt.”

Karzai has dominated Afghan politics since 2002, when he was named the country’s transitional leader at a U.N. conference after the fall of the Taliban. He has since won two elections, benefiting from name recognition, a fractious opposition and his ability to offer governorships and ministries to allies.

Wide-open race

This time, the race could be wide open, and the field of likely candidates includes several of Karzai’s former and current Cabinet ministers, an array of Afghan-American technocrats, a women’s rights activist in the national legislature, and Karzai’s brother Qayum, a longtime U.S.-based businessman.

Qayum Karzai’s candidacy, which would provide the most obvious sinecure for the departing president, is being promoted by a second brother, Mahmoud Karzai, a wealthy Afghan-American investor. He and a team of supporters have drafted a platform that includes promoting foreign investment, fighting official corruption and revamping stalled peace talks with the Taliban.

“Our movement’s candidate is Qayum, but whether he will announce he is running is a different issue,” Mahmoud Karzai said in an interview at his home here last month. He criticized Hamid Karzai’s government, saying it had “used people to enrich the executive,” and said that if Qayum wins,” it will put the future of Afghanistan on an international standard.”

In contrast to that opaque dynastic scenario, a wide assortment of political parties and leaders have formed pre-election umbrella groups with names such as the Committee on Consensus and the Cooperation Council. Their goal, they say, is to make the upcoming election a watershed in Afghanistan’s evolution from a system of power based on personality, ethnicity and force to a more modern democratic system based on parties and ideology.

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