KABUL – Afghanistan goes to the polls on Saturday with three contenders dominating the eight-man race to succeed President Hamid Karzai and lead the country without the aid of NATO combat troops to fight the Taliban.
Political maneuvering and speculation have been fevered, but with ethnic loyalties likely to play a decisive role, few experts are willing to predict the eventual winner.
Urbane former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah was a member of Burhanuddin Rabbani’s government before the Taliban era, and he made a name for himself abroad for his fluent English and courtly manner.
A qualified eye surgeon, he was born to an ethnic Pashtun father and a Tajik mother. His support base is the Tajik-dominated areas of the north and northeast.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, he was appointed foreign minister during the transitional government and served under Karzai until he was sacked in 2006.
He came second in the 2009 election with around 30 percent of the vote, triggering a runoff against Karzai, but withdrew amid allegations that Karzai supporters were involved in massive vote fraud.
On the campaign trail, he has often warned election officials to be on guard against a repeat of the corruption seen in 2009.
Abdullah, 53, is married with three daughters and a son.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai
A razor-sharp academic and renowned intellectual, 64-year-old Ahmadzai taught at several universities in the United States during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
He worked with the World Bank for 11 years from 1991, and served in Kabul as special adviser to U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi after the fall of the Taliban.
He was appointed finance minister in Karzai’s transitional government of 2002-2004 and later led the national security transition commission.
Ahmadzai, who is known for his quick temper, came fourth in the 2009 election with less than 3 percent of the vote but has performed strongly during this campaign.
He has given passionate speeches vowing to concentrate on improving infrastructure such as roads, railways, dams and electricity supplies.
He is a Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and has energized support in the south and east. Last year, he came second in a “world thinkers” poll by Prospect magazine.
He shocked many Afghans by choosing as a running mate Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord accused of multiple human rights abuses who should deliver the Uzbek minority vote.
The soft-spoken former foreign minister became a major contender when he emerged as the unofficial preference of Karzai.
Karzai has vowed not to publicly back any one runner, but his choice appeared clear when Karzai’s brother Qayum dropped out of the race and endorsed Rassoul.
Rassoul is one of the president’s closest loyalists, and diplomats in Kabul have described his shot at the top job as “propelled by the palace.”
Age 70, he was born in Kabul and is a doctor by profession, training at a medical school in Paris.
He served as chief of staff and personal doctor to former King Zahir Shah. In 2002, Rassoul was minister of civil aviation and later was national security adviser to Karzai.
Rassoul is a bachelor. He is fluent in Dari, English, French, Italian and Arabic. He is ethnically Pashtun but has been criticized for his poor Pashto-language skills.
Rassoul is the only leading candidate to choose a woman as one of his two running mates: Habiba Sarabi, the former governor of Bamiyan province, who could become the first woman to ever hold a senior position in Afghanistan.