Twenty-seven presidential hopefuls have registered as candidates for Afghanistan's crucial April 5 vote, setting the stage for a wide-open race among former warlords, powerful officials, and several prominent Western-educated technocrats.
Each candidate has entered the race on a ticket that includes a first and second vice-presidential running mate. These tickets are often the result of political horse-trading that can forge unlikely unions.
In a country where no ethnic group can dominate the political scene on its own, candidates cross ethnic lines to choose high-profile running mates who can marshal votes from specific ethnic communities. The results can defy logic and assumptions based on previous electoral alliances and coalitions.
The current list is sure to be whittled down further. Candidates will be vetted by Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC), which will publish its list of approved candidates on October 19. A final list will be announced on November 16, after which campaigning can begin.
Compared to the fraud-marred 2009 election, the criteria for prospective candidates are much tougher.
Candidates must be at least 40 years old, collect 100,000 signatures of support from 20 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, and deposit around 1 million afghanis ($18,000) to the IEC.
Here is a list of some of the names to watch:
Former foreign minister and qualified eye surgeon Abdullah Abdullah is an ethnic Tajik and 2009 election runner-up. He raised eyebrows when he announced that he would be teaming up with highly unlikely running mates.
The Jamiat-e Islami and Hezb-e Islami were deadly rivals during Afghanistan's civil war, but that did not prevent Jamiat-e Islami member Abdullah from adding Hezb-e Islami associate Mohammad Khan to his ticket. Khan, a Pashtun, will join influential Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqeq.
Kate Clark, a senior analyst at Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization in Kabul, sees the alliance as a cool-headed calculation.
"Neither side naturally likes one another at all but they both see this as a useful coalition," she says. "Certainly for Abdullah, Hezb-e Islami represents the best Pashtun network that he thinks might access Pashtun voters."
Former finance minister and World Bank official Ashraf Ghani, who has a doctorate in cultural anthropology, has partnered up with Sarwar Danish, a Hazara leader who has served as governor of Daikundi Province and as the country's justice minister. Ghani's other running mate is General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former warlord and leader of Afghanistan's Uzbek community.
Ghani ran in the 2009 election and fared poorly, winning only 3 percent of the vote. But Omar Samad, a senior Central Asia Fellow at New America Foundation and former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, suggests that teaming up with influential ethnic leaders may give Ghani a boost.
"Having garnered the support of General Dostum, Dr. Ghani now has a vote bank that he can rely on," he says. "But will that vote bank be enough and what is he losing as a result? Since the field is very crowded, vote banks are going to be split, so I expect Dr. Ghani to gain on one hand, but also expect losses on the other hand."
Prominent Pashtun and former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasul is seen by many as the president's favored candidate. Rasul hails from the powerful Mohammadzai tribe in the country's south that has ruled Afghanistan for the past century.
Rasul is running with Ahmad Zia Masud, a former vice president and brother of assassinated Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Masud. The other is Habiba Sarabi, a Hazara who was governor of Bamiyan Province and is one of five female vice-presidential candidates.
Waliullah Rahmani, the director of the Kabul-based Center for Strategic Studies, says Rasul's heritage along with his running mates' strong pull in northern and central Afghanistan make him one of the early favorites.
"He is not a very vocal public figure," he says. "Instead, he is a strategist that has worked very closely with national security. Zalmai Rasul enjoys traditional family heritage, which builds his tribal support."
Abdul Rasul Sayyaf
Abdul Rasul Sayyaf
Influential Pashtun lawmaker and religious scholar Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, from Kabul, is one of the most controversial of the candidates. Sayyaf is an Egyptian-trained cleric who brought leading Al-Qaeda figures to Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
He has teamed up with Ismail Khan, the former energy and water minister and powerful ethnic Tajik warlord from western Afghanistan.
Sayyaf's other vice presidential nominee is Abdul Wahab Erfan, an ethnic Uzbek who has served in parliament.
Prominent technocrat Qayum Karzai is outgoing President Hamid Karzai's older brother. Qayum, a businessman and former lawmaker, has decided to run with Wahidullah Shahrani, an ethnic Uzbek who has served as minister of mines, and Ibrahim Qasemi, a Hazara and former member of parliament. Interestingly, Qayum has not received the backing of his brother.
The lone female presidential candidate is Khadija Ghaznavi. Little is known about Ghaznavi other than that her running mates are General Mohammad Qasem Faezi and General Kheir Mohammad Barez. During the registration process, influential lawmaker and women's rights campaigner Fawzia Koofi had announced her intention to run, but at age 38 she did not meet the minimum age criteria.