KABUL, Afghanistan - Campaigning officially opened Sunday in Afghanistan's presidential election, with 11 candidates vying to succeed President Hamid Karzai in polls seen as a crucial test of whether the country can ensure a stable political transition.
The April 5 presidential vote will be held in a climate of uncertainty as NATO combat forces ready their withdrawal at the end of 2014. If successful, the election will usher in the first handover from one elected president to another in Afghan history.
Security is a major concern in the election, as is potential fraud after allegations of vote-rigging marred the 2009 polls. The eventual winner will face the tough task of continuing to fight the bloody Taliban insurgency, overseeing the end of the international coalition's combat mission and possibly deciding if any residual foreign forces will remain next year.
An Afghan policeman stands guard on a police vehicle at a check point during the first day of Afghanistan's presidential election campaign in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday.
Karzai - who has more or less led Afghanistan in the 12 years after the intervention to oust the Taliban's extremist Islamic regime for sheltering al-Qaida's leadership after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. - is constitutionally barred from running for a third term.
On a cold and rainy Sunday morning in Kabul, campaign workers hastened to hang posters on lampposts and plaster their candidates' faces on billboards. Several political heavyweights including opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani held rallies in local wedding halls, while security forces with machine guns guarded the venues.
The specter of violence hangs over the election season, with the Taliban vowing to disrupt the polls and two political workers killed in western Afghanistan on the eve of the campaign launch. The government provides each candidate three armored vehicles and three pickup trucks, plus 35 armed policemen as protection.
There is no clear front-runner, though opposition leader Abdullah arguably has an early advantage in name recognition and campaign experience, having gained 31 percent of the vote as runner-up to Karzai in the 2009 elections. He is popular among Afghanistan's Tajik ethnic minority, but it is unclear if he can attract votes of enough Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group, to win office.
Abdullah voiced support Sunday for Afghanistan entering into a security agreement with the U.S. that would allow a few thousand foreign forces to remain to train and equip Afghanistan's army and police, saying the country still needs outside support.
"God willing, with the signing of this agreement, today or tomorrow, the concerns of our people would be over," Abdullah told supporters.
Karzai has refused to sign the agreement, and none of the other candidates has addressed the issue.
The lineup 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.