Forty-four candidates applied by Friday's deadline to run in Afghanistan's presidential elections, scheduled for Aug. 20. But even before the campaign officially kicks off, allegations of fraud and intimidation by incumbent President Hamid Karzai and his ticket are shaping the race.
Karzai, leader of the country since the U.S.-led war in 2001 that ousted the Taliban-led regime, also has been criticized for choosing a powerful warlord as his running mate.
The vote will mark the first time in Afghanistan's history that one democratically chosen leader will be replaced by another.
Election officials say the list of 44 people who registered will be reviewed, with a final list to be released by the end of the month. But many analysts say Karzai is well positioned to win reelection.
Critics: Choice Sends Wrong Message
At a recent rally in Kabul for Karzai's running mate, participants praised the democracy in Afghanistan they say their candidate represents.
But Karzai's decision to put warlord Mohammad Qasim Fahim on his ticket as first vice president represents what is wrong with democracy in the country these days, others in Afghanistan say.
"It demonstrates clearly a return to the past," says Nader Naderi, who chairs the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan.
"In a time when the Afghan population demands a better administration, reforms, end of corruption, end of the influence of warlords, in such a time, what kind of a political mind would go for such a choice?" Naderi asks. "It doesn't make sense at all, at least from our perspective and the general population."
Candidate Denies Wrongdoing
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 as a running mate 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.
"I'm not giving this much thought because the allegations are baseless. My critics are engaging in character assassination of people this country happens to respect," he says.
His street is guarded by dozens of heavily armed men. Yet Fahim insists he has no militias.
He is not proud of how he and other commanders acted during the civil war, Fahim says. But otherwise, he says he has no regrets about his actions over the past 30 years.
Karzai Defends Decision
Karzai, in Washington, D.C., this week for talks with President Obama, says he chose Fahim because he and other commanders who played a pivotal role in defeating the Taliban were unfairly sidelined over the years.
"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," Karzai said. "I want Afghanistan, if I win, to be a lot more united and a lot more together as a country."
Mohammad Qassim Akhgar, editor-in-chief of the independent Afghan newspaper 8 a.m., says political strategy is at play in Karzai's decision.
Karzai's popularity is dwindling at home, he says, where insecurity and corruption are on the rise.
Akhgar says Karzai needs a running mate who can peel votes away from the main opposition party dominated by ethnic Tajiks, like Fahim.
Allegations Mount Against President, Too
John Dempsey, head of the U.S. Institute of Peace's Kabul office, says Fahim's selection could put even more distance between Afghans and their government.
Meanwhile, allegations are mounting against Karzai, too. He is accused of using the powers of government and foreign aid to attract votes across the country's far-flung provinces.
Karzai's spokesmen have repeatedly denied such claims.
But the Afghan human rights commission says it receives calls almost daily from sacked government officials, tribal elders and other citizens complaining about the pressure tactics.
"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," Dempsey says.