- Afghan elections - Afghanistan - Hamid Karzai - NATO
AFP - A hotly awaited television debate between Afghan presidential candidates went ahead Thursday without President Hamid Karzai, whose lacklustre campaign is increasingly under fire from critics.
Karzai, who has been in power since US-led troops overthrew the Taliban in 2001, is favourite to win a second term on August 20 but his rivals have accused him of being unable to defend his nearly eight years in office.
His campaign team hit back Thursday, saying the president had not been given enough notice for the head-to-head on private television channel Tolo, which they accused of being "59 percent against Hamid Karzai."
"So based on that, President Hamid Karzai cannot participate in the debate led by this television station considering its unbalanced and illegitimate position," said a statement sent to media.
It said Karzai would only take part in a debate aired on all TV stations with all candidates in the August 20 election, only the second presidential poll in a country ripped apart by conflict.
Western-backed Karzai is favourite to win, but spokesmen for his main opponents were scathing about his snub.
"He does not have any (policy) programme for the coming five years," said Said Ali Razwani, head of media relations for former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, one of Karzai's strongest challengers.
"I think the unpreparedness shows that and that he has nothing to say to defend himself. That is why he could not participate in this debate."
Karzai has so far attended no official campaign events and was out of the country when campaigning officially began on June 16. In contrast, his two main rivals have attended at least one event a week.
The election comes with Afghanistan gripped by the deadliest violence since the Taliban rose up against Karzai's government. About 90,000 Western troops are currently deployed in the country to help quell unrest.
Tackling insecurity and quelling rampant corruption in the impoverished nation are key manifesto promises from most of the 41 candidates standing on August 20, when provincial elections will also take place.
Ajmal Abidi, head of media relations for challenger Ashraf Ghani, accused Karzai of coming up with excuses.
"Mr Karzai fears he cannot face Dr Ashraf Ghani and he cannot face his people. He has no programme, no plans," Abidi told AFP.
The debate went ahead Thursday evening with Ghani and Abdullah laying out their policy platforms and focusing on security and economic issues, as the moderator made frequent references to Karzai's absence.
Haroun Mir, an analyst from the Afghanistan Centre for Research and Policy Studies, said the incumbent appeared to be concentrating on building alliances throughout the country rather than trying to woo individual voters.
While Ghani and Abdullah have hit the election trail hard, Karzai has largely left his bid for power in the hands of his campaign office.
"President Karzai is not campaigning like the other candidates, he wants to avoid direct confrontation because he knows if he takes part in this debate the other two candidates will attack him," Mir said.
"His strategy is to reach out and to broaden his coalition."
Karzai won the 2004 election with 55.4 percent and is tipped by observers to have a good chance at the August ballot despite his failure to rein in corruption or the Taliban in his nearly eight years on the job.
A countrywide poll of 1,500 Afghans released in February found that confidence in the president had plunged from 83 percent in 2005 to 52 percent.