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Shaky start for new Afghan political group

Coalition will back candidate for president

A group of political players met in Kabul on Thursday as part of a plan to forge a new culture of consensus and ideas to replace ethnic and personality politics.

Shah Marai/AFP/ GETTY IMAGES

A group of political players met in Kabul on Thursday as part of a plan to forge a new culture of consensus and ideas to replace ethnic and personality politics.

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 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.

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In the end, weeks of private negotiations among political players, including ex-warlords and 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 US 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 antigovernment 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 progovernment fraud badly tarnished the outcome.

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Ahmed Zia Massoud, the brother of slain anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, has spearheaded the current grand coalition in an effort to avoid that scenario. Critics see the group as a tenuous marriage of convenience among longtime rivals, but its avowed agenda is to build political consensus and decentralize the government, rather than rely on the whims of powerful personalities and ethnic strongmen.

‘‘We have a strong central government now, but it hasn’t been able to deliver services or security to the people,’’ Massoud said in an interview this week. ‘‘We need a smarter, more flexible system that will create a better balance of powers and strengthen political parties. Our door is open to anyone who wants to join us.’’

But many of the leaders Massoud’s group invited to participate have shunned it or remained ambivalent, including several leading technocrats, such as Jalali, former interior minister Hanif Atmar, and Ashraf Ghani, a senior aide to Karzai. In some cases, analysts said, this is due to ethnic rivalries and mistrust of former northern militia leaders, including General Abdurrashid Dostom, who wore his signature green cape as he sat in the place of honor next to Massoud on Thursday.

In other cases, analysts said, it is because Karzai, who cannot run for a third term, is trying to woo potential candidates as allies, especially those from his southern Pashtun ethnic group, in hopes of remaining a shadow president with influence over a handpicked winner. Publicly, Karzai has denied he will promote any candidate, but the betting is on his foreign minister, Zalmay Rassoul.

‘‘Karzai still wants to try to be the savior of Afghanistan, even from outside the palace,’’ said Nader Nadery, head of the independent Free and Fair Elections Foundation. ‘‘He is trying to break strong coalitions by promising various people he will back them and keep the status quo. But Afghans are fed up with the status quo. They want a strong leader, but not at the price of reform.’’

Somewhat surprisingly, a similar opinion emerged among attendees at Thursday’s coalition launch. Hundreds of former militiamen and tribal elders paid formal respect to the leaders onstage, including Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister who lost to Karzai in 2009 and could emerge as the coalition’s candidate. But many seemed eager for change and disappointed that the new lineup was not broader.

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