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The economist and the eye doctor: The Afghan presidential hopefuls

Afghan employees of IEC prepare ballot boxes. Photograph:( AFP )

AFP Kabul, Afghanistan Sep 26, 2019, 04.05 PM (IST)

A former World Bank economist, an ophthalmologist, a spy chief and a one-time warlord are among the 15 candidates vying for the presidency when Afghanistan heads to the polls this weekend.

Eighteen candidates are set to appear on the official ballot, although three have since dropped out and officials say there is not enough time to update the ballot papers.

The run-up to the poll has been chaotic, with little in the way of campaigning and large swathes of the country unable to vote due to Taliban threats.

Here is a rundown of the main candidates:

The incumbent

President Ashraf Ghani has variously been described as visionary, short-tempered, academic and overly demanding.

The former World Bank economist and finance minister have long nurtured dreams of rebuilding Afghanistan, and firmly believes he is one of the few people, perhaps the only one, capable of handling the responsibility.

Despite a lack of credible polling, he is widely perceived as the overall favourite, though he has made little headway against either the Taliban or deep-rooted government corruption.

And even though Ghani has made repeated overtures to the Taliban for peace, they continue to dismiss him as a US-controlled "puppet", while the Americans sidelined him from now-suspended talks with the militants.

If re-elected, Ghani will be given a mandate in any future Afghan-led peace process with the Taliban should they ever agree to such negotiations.

If talking fails, Ghani has vowed in the past to fight the militants "for generations" if necessary.

The doctor

Former ophthalmologist and resistance fighter Abdullah Abdullah is again on the cusp of becoming the president of Afghanistan after being defeated in two previous elections, both tarnished by widespread allegations of fraud.

Abdullah, once an eye doctor in Kabul, was a member of Burhanuddin Rabbani's government during Afghanistan's 1992-1996 civil war, and made a name for himself abroad for his fluent English and refined manner.

His formative political experience was as the right-hand man to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the celebrated Tajik commander who led resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and to the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, only to be assassinated by Al Qaeda two days before the 9/11 attacks.

Both Abdullah and Ghani ran in 2014, and both claimed they had won.

To avert a full-blown conflict, then US secretary of state John Kerry brokered a power-sharing deal between the two that left Abdullah as the country's chief executive.

Abdullah has been in an unending tug of war with Ghani ever since, with bitter infighting in their administration preventing major attempts at reforms and legislation, while the two avoid public appearances together due to deep-seated enmity.

If finally elected, Abdullah has pledged to prioritise peace along with vague promises to improve the economy.

The butcher of Kabul

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has lived many lives in a career forged in the crucible of Afghanistan's decades of war. Widely regarded as one of the most notorious warlords in Afghanistan's bloody history, he has also been an anti-Soviet commander, prime minister, and now a presidential contender.

He was accused of killing thousands during the 1992-1996 civil war and earned the nickname "the butcher of Kabul" for his brutal shelling of the capital.

After the 2001 US-led invasion, Washington designated him a terrorist, accusing him of colluding with Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.

Hekmatyar made a surprising re-entry into the political mainstream in 2017 following a peace deal between his dormant Hezb-i-Islami militant group and Ghani.

If elected, Hekmatyar has vowed to oversee the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan once and for all.

The lion's brother

Ahmad Wali Massoud is hoping to cash in on the fame of his renowned elder brother Ahmad Shah Massoud, the so-called "Lion of Panjshir" who worked so closely with Abdullah.

Other than a stint as the Afghan ambassador to the United Kingdom, Massoud has little in the way of political experience and has largely spent the last two decades as his brother's keeper, running a foundation in his name.

But he remains popular with the country's Tajik ethnic group, especially powerbrokers from his native Panjshir province that has enjoyed an outsized role in the government since 2001.  

Massoud, however, is believed to have little chance of winning and at best can hope for an appointment in any future government.

Hopefuls

The 12 other candidates encompass a wide range of personalities, including former communists and a spy chief.  

Rahmatullah Nabil is hoping his security credentials will woo voters after twice serving as the head of the Afghan intelligence agency.

And former communist party member Nur ul-Haq Ulumi -- who also briefly served as an interior minister in 2015 -- is in the race but stands little chance of making waves.

Story highlights

Eighteen candidates are set to appear on the official ballot, although three have since dropped out and officials say there is not enough time to update the ballot papers.