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Afghan election campaign kicks off

Campaigning for Afghanistan's April 5 presidential election kicked off on Sunday, with 11 candidates veying for power but no clear front runner.

Men install a campaign banner of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah (L) during the first day of the presidential election campaign in Kabul on February 2, 2014. Omar Sobhani/Reuters
Men install a campaign banner of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah (L) during the first day of the presidential election campaign in Kabul on February 2, 2014. Omar Sobhani/Reuters

KABUL // Campaigning officially opened on Sunday in Afghanistan’s presidential election, with 11 candidates vying to succeed President Hamid Karzai in polls seen as a crucial test of whether Afghanistan can ensure a stable political transition.

The April 5 presidential vote will be held as Nato combat forces ready their withdrawal at the end of 2014 after nearly 13 years of war. If successful, it will be the first handover from one elected president to another in Afghan history. Mr Karzai is constitutionally barred from running for a third term.

The election faces many hurdles: allegations of vote-rigging marred the 2009 election and security is a major concern.

The spectre of violence hangs over the campaign season, with the Taliban vowing to disrupt the poll. On the eve of the campaign launch, two political workers were killed in western Afghanistan.

Kabul was dotted with billboards and posters for the candidates. Several political heavyweights — including Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani — held rallies to mark the campaign’s first day.

There is no clear front-runner, though opposition leader Mr Abdullah arguably has an early advantage in name recognition and campaign experience, having gained 31 per cent of the vote as runner-up to Hamid Karzai in the disputed 2009 elections.

The line-up of other candidates illustrates that patronage and alliances among the elite still form the bedrock of Afghanistan’s politics, where tribal elders and warlords can marshal votes.

The contenders include Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun former finance minister who oversaw the transition of security from foreign forces to the Afghan army and police, and who ran and lost in the 2009 elections.

Like many of the candidates, Mr Ghani picked a running mate with broader appeal in an attempt to bridge Afghanistan’s ethnic divides. He tapped former warlord Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum — who is thought to control the majority of the Uzbek vote — as his one of his two potential vice presidents.

The country’s population of 31 million is roughly 42 per cent Pashtun, 27 per cent Tajik, 9 per cent Hazara, and 9 per cent Uzbek along with other, smaller groups. The Taliban are predominantly Pashtun, and Mr Karzai is also Pashtun.

Mr Karzai’s former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, a Pashtun, is running with Ahmad Zia Massoud, the brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance commander assassinated in an Al Qaeda suicide bombing two days before September 11, 2001. Mr Rassoul is a former national security adviser to the government who has tended to stay out of the limelight — but could up end being a consensus candidate among many political factions in the country.

Also running is Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, whose long history as a fighter and alleged past links to Arab militants make him possibly the most controversial candidate and biggest potential worry to Afghanistan’s international allies.

Mr Sayyaf, who is also an influential Pashtun lawmaker and religious scholar, is running with former energy and water minister Ismail Khan, a Tajik, as one of his two vice presidential picks.

Rounding out the others tipped to be main contenders is Qayyum Karzai, businessman brother of the president.

While the field of 11 could narrow as the campaign grinds on, none of the candidates is expected to garner the majority needed to avoid a run-off. President Karzai has so far not endorsed any of them as a favoured successor.

* Associated Press