The three professionals in top contention to become Afghanistan’s next president have traded in their tailored suits for traditional attire and are speaking at rallies in remote, hardscrabble cities where their advanced degrees mean little.

But the backgrounds of the front-runners — a French-trained physician, an ophthalmologist and a former World Bank official with a doctorate — have inspired hope in foreign capitals of an improvement in Afghanistan’s strained relationship with the United States and NATO.

Saturday’s election is crucial to maintaining stability as the U.S. military winds down its 12-year-old war. Worries about fraud are casting a shadow over the vote, and many Afghans fear that an election seen as illegitimate could fracture the country’s fragile institutions — including the army and police — at a time when the Taliban insurgency remains a major threat.

In interviews, the leading candidates — Zalmay Rassoul, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani — spoke of their ability to navigate Afghan provinces and Western capitals. Each said he would sign a stalled agreement with the U.S. government that would allow American troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

But after weeks of feverish campaigning, with massive rallies despite Taliban threats, it remains unclear what kind of compromises each candidate might make to try to win the election. The doctors, despite their apparent moderate stances, have chosen allies who reflect the influence of ethnicity on Afghan politics.

The Afghan presidential campaign has narrowed to a field of eight men, who are running to succeed Hamid Karzai.

Ghani, the former World Bank official, who holds a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University, has selected Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum as one of his
two vice-presidential candidates. Dostum is an Uzbek commander known as a merciless killer during the civil war of the 1990s.

Abdullah, the ophthalmologist and a former foreign minister, is running with Mohammad Mohaqiq, an ethnic Hazara leader with a similarly brutal reputation.

Rassoul, the French-educated physician and a former national security adviser and foreign minister, is widely thought to be President Hamid Karzai’s top choice, raising questions about what he might owe Karzai. Although the president hasn’t publicly endorsed a candidate, his brothers, Mahmoud and Qayum, have crisscrossed the country with Rassoul’s campaign.

The three leading candidates have dismissed suggestions by Afghan commentators that their campaigns are mired in old-school Afghan politics. Ghani has said his embrace of Dostum, whom he once described as a “known killer,” is part of an informal transitional justice process.

Rassoul has denied that he was tapped by the president to run.

“The idea that I am a photocopy of him is wrong,” he said.

Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, will no doubt gain Uzbek votes thanks to Dostum. Abdullah, a leading Tajik figure, will profit from Mohaqiq’s Hazara connections. Rassoul, like Karzai, is a Pashtun, but he lacks the president’s ethnic and tribal clout in southern
Afghanistan. The Karzai family
is from Kandahar’s influential Popolzai tribe.

It’s difficult to assess the sizes of the ethnic groups; no census has been conducted in recent years. But it’s clear that Pashtuns and Tajiks are by far the most numerous, and most people think Pashtuns have a considerable edge.

Afghans expect that men such as Dostum, Mohaqiq and the Karzais will look to get something in exchange for their support, but their demands are difficult to predict.

A new kind of voter?

The three top candidates claim that a new, educated class of Afghans has emerged, looking for policy changes rather than patronage networks. That might not be widely true, and in their speeches, the candidates have been vague about their programs.

But on the campaign trail, it was clear that there are pockets of progressive, issues-based voters. Some spoke in terms that were barely heard here a decade ago.

“I’ve been researching the economic platforms of the candidates on the Internet,” said Mohammad Zada, 26, a lawyer, at a rally for Abdullah in Panjshir province in the northeast.

Others said they were less interested in the candidates’ ethnic origins than in whether they would take a stronger line against the Taliban.

Habibullah Hagai, 63, said he would cast his vote for a candidate of any ethnic origin, “as long as they stop the bloodshed.” He was attending a rally for Rassoul in Herat province in the west two weeks after his son, a soldier, was wounded by an improvised explosive device.

In the past few weeks, insurgents have attacked political campaigners, the election commission headquarters and several targets in Kabul associated with foreigners.

U.S. and other Western officials have tried to avoid the appearance that they are backing any of the candidates. But officials acknowledge privately that they are pleased to have three front-
runners who at least seem to be more moderate than some of their competitors — and appear to be more willing negotiating partners than Karzai.

The eight presidential candidates in the race include Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, a mujahideen commander who was connected to Osama bin Laden, and Gul Agha Sherzai, a warlord who chose a bulldozer as his campaign symbol. But the two appear to have a slim chance of winning.

U.S. and Afghan negotiators reached a bilateral security agreement last fall, but Karzai has refused to sign it, leaving that to his successor. In interviews, each leading candidate reiterated his support for the accord.

“It’s the guarantee of sovereignty in Afghanistan,” Ghani said.

“It’s my first order of business,” Abdullah said.

“Our relationship with the West is fundamental,” Rassoul said. “I would sign the current document.”

U.S. officials, however, have not forgotten that Karzai was once a more vocal supporter of the American mission in Afghanistan.

It remains unclear what role Karzai will play in the next administration. Ghani said he would create an advisory job for Karzai — the “Office of the National Leader.” Rassoul and Abdullah were less specific, but both said he would remain relevant.

Worries of fraud

For now, the most pressing concern for Afghan and Western officials is the administration of the election.

A candidate has to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round to avoid a runoff. Fraud tainted the 2009 presidential election, in which Abdullah and Karzai were the two top vote-getters.

Fraud is considered inevitable this time, too, with more than 6,000 polling centers, many of them in remote areas and difficult to monitor. The only question is the scale.

“I will be absolutely amazed if we don’t have stolen votes,” Qayum Karzai said while traveling to a Rassoul campaign event.

In 2009, Abdullah agreed to drop out after the first round. This time, he says, he will not withdraw if there is fraud. And he is convinced that fraud would be the only reason he would lose.

“It is not in the interest of the country this time to stand down,” Abdullah said. If fraud cost him the election, he said, he would not advocate violence. Instead, he would mobilize thousands of people to effectively shut down the country’s institutions until the vote was resolved.

Other candidates, peripheral but powerful, have made similar threats. If large constituencies driven by ethnic considerations refuse to accept the election results, chaos could ensue.

“The government has already interfered by supporting Rassoul,” Sherzai said.

Because of the slow-moving process of collecting and counting ballots, the winner is unlikely to be announced formally for weeks.

Mohammad Sharif and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.