KABUL, Afghanistan – He has become the president who won't leave the palace.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's five-year term in office expired last week, but he's conducting business as usual. Eager to make history as a peacemaker and further his agenda of reform and modernization, he is holding back-to-back meetings on boosting exports or upgrading the fetid Kabul River.
Ghani's position has been reinforced by a Supreme Court decision extending his tenure until an election is held in September. But foes charge that he is inviting "chaos" at a time of aggressive insurgent attacks and growing political divisions, and they accuse him of using public patronage and funds to bolster his re-election.
The 70-year-old president entered office in 2014 in an awkward power-sharing deal with his former top rival, brokered by U.S. officials after a fraud-plagued, inconclusive election.
A group of a dozen presidential candidates say Ghani is adding yet another period of questionable legitimacy to his tenure. They have called on him to resign and let a caretaker or interim government oversee the polls. They have also threatened to stage street protests if he refuses.
Ghani's governing partner, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, and his former national security adviser are planning to run against him and have insisted that he step down. Ghani, in turn, has brought a variety of new figures into his camp, including an ex-intelligence chief who was once his sharpest critic and is now his running mate.
"We are all united in our hatred for Ghani. We don't want to see violence, but he needs to go," said Ahmad Wali Massood, a member of the group of candidates that has called for protests if the president refuses to leave. "We need someone who can protect the election process, an independent national figure. At this point, anyone would be better than Ghani."
Supporters of the president say his intent is the opposite of chaos: to provide stability at a time of deep public anxiety about the future, with elections postponed again, a new parliament consumed by ethnic feuding and peace talks with the Taliban in limbo.
Even facing chronic health problems, Ghani's aides say, the former World Bank official has worked tirelessly to improve government, curb corruption and seek peace.
One year ago, he initiated a cease-fire that led to soaring hopes for reconciliation after three days of cordial interactions among Taliban fighters and civilians. Last month, he convened a national assembly of 3,000 people and pledged to pursue their unanimous call for an end to conflict.
"It's an election season, and political actors want to score points against him, but the government has to keep delivering security and services," said Nader Nadery, a senior aide to Ghani. He noted that Ghani recently told the new parliament he had no wish "to stay a single day more in office" without being re-elected but had no choice after the national election commission postponed the vote.
Presidential spokesman Haroon Chakhansuri said that the Supreme Court is the highest legal authority and that any demand for a caretaker government is "extra-constitutional," although he added that "we respect any group or individual's right to peaceful protest."
Ghani took office with a far-reaching, reformist vision for Afghanistan's future, but he has lost considerable popularity in the past year, with the economy stagnating and conflict continuing unabated. He has been sidelined from talks with the Taliban, who dismiss him as an "American puppet."
Last month, Ghani and his aides tried to arrange a first meeting between a cross-section of Afghans and the Taliban in Qatar, but it collapsed over disagreements on the size and makeup of the Afghan delegation, which Taliban officials disparaged as a "Kabul wedding party."
As the peace process has stagnated, Ghani's relations with Washington have also soured despite their long-standing military partnership. The rupture deepened after one of Ghani's closest aides publicly denounced the U.S.-led peace effort and its diplomatic point man, Zalmay Khalilzad, during a visit to Washington in March.
Afghans appear split on Ghani's performance and ambitions. In recent interviews, many Kabul residents expressed frustration and worry, and some fretted that Ghani might be trying to extend his tenure indefinitely.