KABUL -- With 2,000 supporters crammed into a chandeliered hotel ballroom Thursday, a dozen of Afghanistan's most powerful men gathered to announce that 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 -- seeking to forge 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 that the coalition would last no more than a few weeks.
"It is a very confused situation. There is a lot of horse-trading, but a lot of mistrust," said former Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, a 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 nation, a new Afghan 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 have sparked fears of a repeat of the 2009 presidential race. Mr. Karzai won after the hodgepodge of opposition groups dickered until the last minute, and pro-government fraud badly tarnished the outcome.
Ahmed Zia Massoud, 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," Mr. 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 whom Mr. Massoud's group invited to participate have shunned it or remained ambivalent, including several leading technocrats, such as Mr. Jalali; Hanif Atmar, who is another former interior minister; and Ashraf Ghani, a Karzai senior aide. In some cases, analysts said, this is due to ethnic rivalries and mistrust of former northern militia leaders, including Gen. Abdurrashid Dostom, who wore his signature green cape as he sat Thursday in the place of honor next to Mr. Massoud.
In other cases, analysts said, it is because Mr. 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, Mr. Karzai has denied that he will promote any candidate, but the betting is on his foreign minister, Zalmay Rassoul.