KABUL (Reuters) - The disqualification of 16 presidential candidates from Afghanistan's presidential race prompted an outcry from independent monitors on Wednesday, while some victims accused the government of being behind the move.
Cutting the number of candidates to 10, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) said those disqualified had either retained citizenship of another country or failed to provide evidence of enough support.
Western observers complained the process had been disorganised, with one senior official noting the final list was still being worked on just hours before the announcement.
Many are increasingly concerned about a repeat of the widescale fraud seen in 2009 because of deteriorating security and the flourishing trade in voter cards.
The NATO-led force in Afghanistan is hoping next year's vote will be credible enough to mark the country's first democratic transfer of power before most foreign troops pull out by the end of the year.
One ex-presidential hopeful, former commerce minister Anwar ul Haq Ahadi, told reporters his citizenship documents had no issues and that there must have been another motive.
"By this act, the IEC's leadership has lost its credibility," Ahadi said.
Independent monitors said the watchdog's processes lacked transparency because candidates had not been informed of its decisions until they were announced to the media. And even then, the IEC declined to say why it had excluded them on the grounds it would damage the candidate's reputation.
"The method ... disqualifying 16 candidates, was not transparent and it raises serious questions," the chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, Janan Spinghar, told Reuters.
"The disqualified candidates should have been informed (first) and given enough reasons."
Kate Clark, of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said the election had started with accusations of serious fraud and a further limitation of choice.
"It is not a promising beginning to the campaign to chose Afghanistan's next president," she wrote.
IEC spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor said all the disqualified contenders could appeal to the Electoral Complaints Commission over the next 20 days and anyone found to have been unfairly excluded would be able to run.
"I was one of the people who witnessed the whole process and I can say there has been no intervention by President Karzai or anyone else," he said. "Really, they didn't provide the criteria for the presidency."
Candidates had been required to collect 100,000 voter cards from at least 20 provinces to prove they had widespread support. This helped fuel a burgeoning trade in votes, with cards changing hands for about $5 each.
Despite the cull, all those considered to be front-runners made it to the next round, leaving the race wide open to various former warlords, businessmen, regional strongmen and key power brokers, including President Hamid Karzai's brother, Qayum.
Karzai himself is constitutionally barred from running again after serving two terms since coming to power in 2001.
Other front-runners include former Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul and West-leaning intellectual Ashraf Ghani.
Editing by Nick Macfie