The 18 candidates in Afghanistan's first direct presidential election officially launched their campaigns today, and three key issues already have emerged: enhancing security, reducing poverty, and speeding reconstruction.
Some experts say the electoral process itself is an issue that could impact the success of Afghanistan's post-Taliban reforms.
"The best-case scenario is that these elections usher in a new politics for Afghanistan and delegitimize the old politics of Afghanistan," said Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit -- an independent, Kabul-based research group that is studying the country's transformation to democracy. "But the worst-case scenario, however, is that the elections are viewed as deeply flawed -- losers cry 'foul,' engage in destabilization efforts -- and the actual elections themselves end up not being viewed as credible or legitimate."
Hamid Karzai, the internationally backed leader of the Afghan Transitional Administration, is widely considered the frontrunner. Karzai said security issues -- both within Afghanistan and along its borders -- form a major theme in his campaign.
"If people elect me, then my government will create such an Afghanistan that is able to stand on its own feet and should have its own army and its own police," Karzai said. "It should be able to defend its own territory so that no country -- a neighbor or any other country -- can look at Afghanistan with bad intensions."
Political analysts say it remains unclear whether Karzai -- an ethnic Pashtun -- will get support from the majority of voters he needs for an outright victory in the first round on October 9. That's because the vote will be divided between Karzai and 17 other candidates who represent different ethnic groups and factional interests. If no candidate secures a first-round majority, a second-round vote between the top two finishers is expected in November.
Karzai's strongest challenger is thought to be Mohammad Yunos Qanuni. He had been the interior minister in Karzai's first interim administration and resigned as the education minister in Karzai's current cabinet in order to run for the presidency. Qanuni is an ethnic Tajik who has substantial support in the Panjshir Valley -- a former stronghold of resistance against both the Taliban regime and the Soviet occupation. He also has strong support among the rank-and-file members of the Interior Ministry.
Another significant candidate is General Abdul Rashid Dostum -- the Uzbek militia commander based in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. Dostum changed sides frequently during Afghanistan's wars in the past three decades. He fought on the side of Soviet forces before joining the mujahedin during the 1980s and 1990s. His private militia also received U.S. military support in late 2001 as a key faction of the anti-Taliban coalition formerly known as the United Front (aka Northern Alliance).
Candidate Mohammad Mohaqeq is a leader of the Hazara ethnic minority. He has wide support in parts of northern and central Afghanistan. Mohaqeq also fought against the Soviets in the 1980s. He was a vice president in Karzai's first interim administration but was sacked from that post in 2002. He was sacked from his post as the minister of planning in March.
Mas'uda Jalal is the only woman running for president. She is an ethnic Tajik who rose to prominence when she came in second at the Emergency Loya Jirga in 2002 that confirmed Karzai's current administration. Although Jalal already has attracted much attention from the international media, political analysts predict she will have more difficulty getting votes from conservative Afghans.
Jalal said in a campaign speech today that she is the candidate who can do the most for Afghan women: "If I succeed in the election, it will be a success for all of you Afghan women and all those people who have suffered in the past."
In a joint report issued earlier this week, the United Nations and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) warned that the electoral process could be seriously undermined by the lack of security across the country.
The report said intimidation of both voters and candidates by warlords and Islamic extremists could hurt the election's chances for success. It also warned that a lack of information and understanding among Afghans about democratic elections -- especially in rural areas -- contributes to the risk of election manipulation.