KABUL - Presidential elections seen as crucial to Afghanistan’s stability after the withdrawal of NATO troops at the end of 2014 will be held on April 5 that year, a poll official said Tuesday.

President Hamid Karzai, who is serving his second term in the war-torn nation, is constitutionally barred from running in the election and has been under pressure from opposition groups to announce the date.

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission said in a statement that the date for the vote had been set and would be officially announced at a press conference on Wednesday.

But a senior official in the commission told AFP on condition of anonymity that the scheduled date was ‘Hamal 16, 1393’, referring to the Afghan solar calendar. The date coincides with April 5, 2014.

European Union ambassador Vygaudas Usackas hailed the announcement as “a positive demonstration that the Afghan authorities are taking their political commitments at the Tokyo conference very seriously”.

Donor nations at the conference in July pledged $16 billion for Afghanistan to prevent the country from sliding back into turmoil when foreign combat troops depart, with several pre-conditions including presidential elections in 2014.

“The elections must be inclusive, transparent and with a legitimate outcome,” Usackas added.

Karzai’s re-election in 2009 was marred by widespread allegations of fraud, and the credibility of the next vote is seen as key to avoiding an escalation in violence after the NATO withdrawal.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank warned this month that the Kabul government could fall apart after NATO troops pull out, particularly if the presidential elections are plagued by fraud.

Karzai has been the only elected head of state in Afghanistan since a 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban regime, and there are concerns that he might try to manipulate the polls to ensure the election of an ally, possibly one of his brothers.

“Karzai seems more interested in perpetuating his own power by any means rather than ensuring credibility of the political system and long-term stability in the country,” said Candace Rondeaux, the ICG’s senior Afghanistan analyst.

“The danger is president Karzai’s top priority is maintaining control, either directly or via a trusted proxy,” Rondeaux said.

The Afghan government announced last week that it would not accept foreigners on a key election watchdog for the presidential elections, a move that may undermine the credibility of the poll.

Karzai said the presence of foreigners on the Electoral Complaints Commission went against the “sovereignty of Afghanistan”, suggesting that the two foreigners on the five-member body will be removed.

The president is elected as an individual rather than as an official representative of a party, and at this stage there are no clear front-runners to take over from Karzai.

In the 2009 election, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah won 30 per cent of the vote before withdrawing from a second-round showdown because of the allegations of massive fraud by Karzai’s supporters.

Abdullah told AFP in an interview earlier this year that he had not yet decided whether to run again, but added that “more than half my heart says I might be a candidate”.

Leading women’s rights champion, author and lawmaker Fawzia Koofi has said she will run if there is a prospect of free and fair elections.

She has dismissed forecasts that she would be trounced in such a male-dominated country, saying there is a strong desire for change among young people, women, the educated elite and even in rural villages.