Tuesday | December 12, 2017
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No official candidates have emerged for Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential election

KABUL — With 2,000 supporters crammed into a chandeliered hotel ballroom Thursday, a dozen of Afghanistan’s most powerful men gathered to announce they had formed a “grand coalition” to contest presidential elections in April and would announce a single candidate within the next several weeks.

But the event, delayed by a faulty sound system and chaotic seating plan, seemed to go wrong in other ways, too. The row of leaders seated onstage, mostly former militia bosses from the Afghan north, did not include several prominent technocrats and new faces many invitees had hoped to see. The applause was tepid, and the rush to lunch was swift.

In the end, weeks of private negotiations among political players from ex-warlords to ex-diplomats, aimed at forging a new culture of consensus and ideas to replace ethnic and personality politics, fell far short of that lofty goal, leaving the pre-election picture as murky and mercurial as ever. Several analysts predicted the coalition would not last more than a few weeks.

“It is a very confused situation. There is a lot of horse-trading but a lot of mistrust,” said Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former interior minister and longtime U.S. resident who is part of a separate, technocrat-based electoral coalition. “We all know that the survival of the state is at stake and the political structure has to change. But with only a few weeks before the deadline, we still have no idea who the candidates will be.”

The election is widely seen as a make-or-break moment for Afghanistan. A decade of tumultuous democratic rule under President Hamid Karzai is ending, and the country is entering an uncertain political era, as Taliban fighters continue waging an aggressive anti-government insurgency and Western troops start dwindling to a few thousand by next year.

In technical terms, the preparations are going relatively well. More than 350,000 new voters have been registered at hundreds of sites across the country, a new national election commission has been chosen, and information about potential candidates and issues has spread via cellphones, Facebook and Twitter across a vast, mountainous country, where winter snows can cut off half the population. The deadline for candidates to be declared is Oct. 6, and the campaign begins in December.

In political terms, though, the lack of any official candidates at this late date and the inconclusive rounds of talks among shifting rival groups has sparked fears of a repeat of the 2009 presidential race. Karzai won after the hodgepodge of opposition groups dickered until the last minute, and pro-government fraud badly tarnished the outcome.