MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. In Afghanistan, today is the last day for presidential candidates to register for this August elections. According to the country's Independent Election Commission, 44 candidates have signed up. The vote will mark the first time in Afghanistan's history that one democratically chosen government will be replaced by another.
But even before the campaign officially kicks off, there have been allegations of fraud and intimidation by incumbent President Hamid Karzai and his ticket.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story from Kabul.
(Soundbite of rally)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: At a recent rally here in Kabul for Karzai's top running mate, participants praised the democracy in Afghanistan they say their candidate represents. But Karzai's decision to put powerful warlord Muhammad Qasim Fahim on his ticket as first vice president is what many others here say is wrong with democracy in Afghanistan these days.
Mr. NADER NADERI (Chairman, Free and Fair Election Foundation, Afghanistan): It demonstrates clearly a return to the past.
NELSON: That's Nader Naderi who chairs the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan.
Mr. NADERI: In a time when the Afghan population demands a better administration, reform, end of the corruption, end of the influence of the warlords, in such a time, what kind of a political mind would go for such a choice? It doesn't make sense at all, at least from our perspective and general population.
NELSON: Fahim is one of many strongmen accused of war crimes during the country's civil war in the 1990s. The former defense minister is also accused of coercion and corruption. Karzai dropped him in 2004 because of international pressure. Many Westerners and Afghans believe the 52-year-old Fahim runs a network of militias in the north that can garner many votes.
In a rare interview at his home in a fashionable hillside neighborhood of Kabul, Fahim denied any wrongdoing.
Mr. MUHAMMAD QASIM FAHIM (Vice Presidential Candidate, Afghanistan): (Through Translator) I'm not giving this much thought because the allegations are baseless. My critics are engaged in a character assassination of people this country happens to respect.
NELSON: His street is guarded by dozens of heavily armed men. Yet Fahim insists he has no militias.
Mr. FAHIM: (Speaking foreign language)
NELSON: He says he's not proud about how he and other commanders acted during the civil war. But otherwise, he says, he has no regrets about his actions over the past 30 years.
Karzai, on a visit to Washington, says he chose Fahim because he and other commanders who played a pivotal role in defeating the Taliban were unfairly sidelined over the years.
President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): This caused a sentiment in Afghanistan that had to be corrected. And I chose my first vice president based on this criteria, and also because the second elections in the country are going to cause a lot more tension than the first one caused. I wanted Afghanistan, if I win, to be a lot more united and a lot more together as a country.
NELSON: Mohammad Qassim Akhgar, editor-in-chief of the independent Afghan newspaper, 8 AM, says there's more to it, however.
Mr. MOHAMMAD QASSIM AKHGAR (Editor-In-Chief, 8 AM): (Speaking foreign language)
NELSON: He says Karzai's popularity is dwindling at home where insecurity and corruption are on the rise. Akhgar says Karzai needs a running mate who can peal votes away from the main opposition party dominated by ethnic Tajiks like Fahim.
But John Dempsey, who heads the Kabul office of the U.S. Institute of Peace, says Fahim's selection could put even more distance between Afghans and their government.
Mr. John Dempsey (Director, U.S. Institute of Peace, Kabul): Afghans, I think, are largely disillusioned with the whole democratic experiment and many of them are sitting on the fence. And so it's a very critical time right now for Afghanistan to try to restore some faith in their democratic system.
NELSON: Allegations are mounting against Karzai, as well. He is accused of using the powers of government and foreign aid to garner votes across the country's far-flung provinces. Karzai's spokesman have repeatedly denied such claims. But the Afghan human rights commission receives calls almost daily from sacked government officials, tribal elders, and other citizens complaining about the pressure tactics. Meanwhile, the campaign season begins next month.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.
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