KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's election commission has published the final list for the August 20 presidential election, launching a campaign in which 40 challengers will face an uphill climb to topple incumbent Hamid Karzai.
Karzai has ruled since the ouster of the strict Islamist Taliban in 2001, and won the country's first election in 2004.
He has consolidated his position in recent weeks against a divided opposition, despite worsening insurgent violence and public dismay with a corrupt and weak government, and even his opponents now acknowledge he will be difficult to beat.
His main challengers include two former members of his cabinet, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani.
Other candidates include two women, several former government ministers and officials, and even a former Taliban commander now sitting in the parliament.
Three little-known candidates were disqualified earlier this week.
The official campaign begins on June 15 and runs for two months. The United Nations is helping organize the poll and Western donors, many with troops fighting the Taliban, are paying the $223 million bill, election commission chief Azizullah Ludin told reporters while announcing the final list of the candidates.
The announcement of the official list ends a registration period that saw Karzai win endorsements from ethnic and regional leaders, while his opponents failed to unite.
"If I was a betting man I would reckon he [Karzai] was going to win on the first round," a senior Western diplomat told reporters this week. "The reason why so many people are coming aboard with him is because they are jumping aboard the bandwagon of the person they think is going to win."
This marks a change of fortune for the president, who was seen as weak both at home and abroad just a few months ago.
"He was quite low in the winter, and I think he was personally quite down," the Western diplomat said of Karzai. But he said opponents had so far failed to build a coalition that would draw appeal across the country's ethnic divides.
It is still important for the international community to ensure that the election is perceived as fair. Karzai's opponents are "winding themselves up to cry foul," the diplomat said.
The Taliban, leading the insurgency against some 90,000 Western troops, have called the elections a sham and have vowed to unleash a campaign of violence throughout the next few months.
The commander of U.S. forces in central Asia and the Middle East, General David Petraeus, said this week that insurgent attacks have become more frequent than at any time since the Taliban fell after a U.S.-led invasion.
Washington, which calls Afghanistan its top foreign policy priority, and other allies are sending thousands of extra troops in part to help secure the poll. The U.S. force is more than doubling from 32,000 at the end of 2008 to an anticipated 68,000 by the end of this year.
Other Western troops number about 30,000.
Karzai has come under some criticism for nominating a former guerrilla chief as one of his two deputies. Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who would be first vice president, is accused by rights groups and Western diplomats of rights abuses during 30 years of war.
Western governments are still frustrated by the weakness of Afghan institutions but recognize that it is not all Karzai's fault, the diplomat said.
"Even [former U.S. President Franklin] Roosevelt would have struggled to make the system that Karzai inherited work for him, because it just wasn't there," the diplomat said.