ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Throughout Afghanistan's history, the handover of power has been anything but peaceful, and many people there worry that this year will be no different. Voters go to the polls in August, and President Hamid Karzai is running for reelection, but the country's constitution mandates that he step down in May.
Karzai says he won't. He'll stay in office to ensure stability during wartime. Opponents claim Karzai's real motive is to manipulate the polls.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Kabul.
(Soundbite of a military band)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: There are advantages to being an incumbent president in a democratic country, and Afghanistan is no exception.
President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: For one thing, incumbents are guaranteed the spotlight, like President Hamid Karzai at this recent opening session of the Afghan parliament. He laid out his administration's accomplishments, not only for lawmakers, but for millions of viewers on state-run television.
But his opponents claim it's what Karzai is doing behind the scenes that makes it necessary for the president to leave office before the August 20th elections.
Mr. DAOUD SULTANZOI (Lawmaker): All the apparatus of his government and your taxpayer money, the American taxpayer money, is being abused to rig this election.
NELSON: That's Daoud Sultanzoi. He's a lawmaker who is one of a growing number of people likely to run against Karzai this summer. He and other critics claim Karzai has filled tens of thousands of government jobs across Afghanistan with people who will campaign for him. And they fear his handlers will tap into hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid that flow into government coffers without adequate oversight.
Karzai's office dismisses such claims as nonsense. Humayun Hamidzada is his spokesman.
Mr. HUMAYUN HAMIDZADA (Spokesman for President Karzai): They would like to, you know, make, you know, allegations, and they're free to do that. There is a freedom of expression guaranteed in this country. But I would suggest that they should also try to back them with any facts and proof, and not just, you know, talking.
NELSON: Still, the mounting allegations worry some Western officials. During a briefing last week to the United Nations Security Council, the U.N.'s top envoy here suggested opposition fears of an unfair election this year are well-founded.
Abdullah Abdullah was Karzai's first foreign minister and is likely to run against him as the main opposition candidate in the upcoming elections.
Mr. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH (Former Foreign Minister, Afghanistan): I think it requires a sense of responsibility from all leaders in the country, including the president himself, to lay the right foundation for the future so the people are not losing their hopes on the process.
NELSON: Abdullah and others say that's why Karzai must step down on May 21st, the date the Afghan Constitution stipulates as the end of the presidential term. They say it would create a more level playing field for all candidates and end concerns that Karzai is brokering backroom deals, illegal or otherwise, to win reelection.
Karzai's opponents say the fact that polls are being delayed several months because of the bad weather, funding shortfalls and insecurity is no problem. Parliament, the Supreme Court and other Afghan institutions can fill the void until a victor is declared. But Karzai isn't going quietly.
Spokesman Humayun Hamidzada says the president is determined to ensure a peaceful transition of power.
Mr. HAMIDZADA: So, the president has a responsibility to hand it over the way it is to another elected government, either be it himself, reelected democratically, or someone else in the spirit of democracy.
NELSON: Hamidzada says the president will ask the Afghan Supreme Court to decide the issue. But experts say the debate is unlikely to end there. John Dempsey heads the Kabul office of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Mr. JOHN DEMPSEY (Director, United States Institute of Peace, Kabul): If the Supreme Court issues a decision, let's say, in Karzai's favor, parliament is certainly not going to recognize the authority of the court to issue that decision. And then, that begs the question, well, who then?
NELSON: Some Afghan officials say privately the issue is likely to be settled by the same type of backroom wheeling and dealing that Karzai critics complain about. They say if Karzai agrees to give up some powers, like issuing decrees and making high-level appointments, the opposition will likely agree to his staying in office until the elections.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.