BBC News (April 4) — Afghans go to the polls on 5 April to elect a president to succeed Hamid Karzai, who has governed Afghanistan since the 2001 fall of the Taliban but is constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term.
This should be the first time power in Afghanistan has been democratically transferred. But pitfalls lie ahead.
Nato combat troops are scheduled to withdraw later this year. The new president is likely to have to cope with more insurgent attacks and the possibility that the Taliban would seek to regain power.
Who are the main contenders?
The main contenders among the eight candidates are former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul, and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.
Dr Abdullah, seen here praying at an election rally, appeals to both Tajik and Pashtun voters, the two main ethnic groups
Abdullah Abdullah was Hamid Karzai’s main challenger in 2009. Foreign minister in 2001-2006 and de facto opposition leader since 2009, he is of mixed Tajik and Pashtun heritage (the two main ethnic groups).
However, he is widely seen as a Tajik, owing to his past role in the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance as well as his ties to its former leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, assassinated in 2001.
Ashraf Ghani will have to broaden his support base if he is to do well in the first round
Ex-academic Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was finance minister in Hamid Karzai’s government from 2004 to 2006.
He appeals to urban Pashtuns and technocrats, but would need the backing of Pashtuns in the south-west to do well in the first round. He has no Tajiks on his ticket and may struggle to get Tajik votes.
Zalmai Rassoul, a 70-year-old diplomat of royal lineage, served as foreign minister in 2010-2013. He is not seen as a polarising figure and has performed well in televised debates.
There are also five other candidates in the running, but none of them is expected to take a significant share of the vote.
Zalmai Rassoul is thought to be President Karzai’s preferred candidate
All the candidates in the race
Is security the main logistical problem?
Yes. The Taliban vowed to disrupt the vote and there were a string of attacks leading up to it. They also pose a longer-term challenge to the entire system of government.
The US and Afghan governments reached a deal to allow thousands of US soldiers to remain after Nato withdraws combat troops at the end of 2014 in order to train Afghan security forces, but Mr Karzai has refused to sign it and has demanded that the Americans meet certain conditions. All the main candidates back the agreement.
What are the main issues?
A final security agreement with the USA is the most pressing issue. The winning candidate will make this his priority. All other issues, from trying to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table to fighting corruption and the drugs trade, depend on this.
What future does security pact give Afghanistan?
Q&A: Foreign forces in Afghanistan
Is the election expected to be free and fair?
The previous presidential election in 2009 was marred by allegations of massive ballot-stuffing and intimidation. Dr Abdullah withdrew from the run-off in protest, allowing Mr Karzai to win by default.
Donor countries have made it clear that continuing aid depends on fair elections.
Karl Inderfurth of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) had expressed “guarded optimism” that the election will be better run than 2009, although there is no guarantee of full transparency.
However, the NDI and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, two of the main election monitoring bodies, have pulled their staff out of Afghanistan following an attack on one of Kabul’s biggest hotels in March.
Opposition campaigners and the media remain concerned, despite assurances from President Karzai that his officials will not interfere in the vote.
They also allege that masses of extra voting cards are already in circulation.
What happens if no one wins in April?
If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, the two top contenders will go to a run-off on 28 May.
As there is no clear front-runner, in contrast to 2009, a run-off is likely.
Final results for the first round are not expected until mid-May, so a similar timetable for a run-off could delay Afghanistan’s transfer of power until July.
This will prolong the uncertainty as the deadline for Nato withdrawal approaches.
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