Hamid Karzai

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, Karzai served as president of the transitional government and became Afghanistan's first popularly elected president in 2004, and is widely considered the favorite to win this year. Karzai has long faced reports of deep-seated corruption and patronage within his administration, as well as allegations that he has misused billions of dollars in foreign aid. As a Pashtun, Karzai enjoys the support of an ethnic group that composes just over half of the country's population. Although generally Sunni-Muslim, Pashtuns are separated into tribal and sub-tribal groups, divisions Karzai has been able to overcome by allegedly making deals with tribal leaders to ensure the backing of the entire Pashtun population. He has also reportedly promised cabinet posts, governorships and even newly created provinces to business and militia figures in exchange for their support.

Abdullah Abdullah

Abdullah is largely considered to pose the biggest threat to Karzai because of his name recognition. In the 1980's, Abdullah was an adviser to the Mujahadin leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated in 2001 and is now considered a national hero. During Taliban rule, Abdullah became deputy foreign minister of the Northern Alliance. After the fall of the Taliban, Karzai named Abdullah minister of foreign affairs in 2002, a post he held until 2006 when the cabinet was reshuffled. Part of the second largest ethnic group in the country, the Tajiks, Abdullah has also tried to reach out to other ethnic groups by wearing traditional clothing common among Tajiks, as well as garments favored by Pashtuns. Abdullah has proposed replacing the current system of government with a parliamentary system.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai

Ghani is an American-educated Pashtun who grew up in Kabul, studied in the U.S. and worked at the World Bank for 11 years. After the Taliban collapsed, he served as the Finance Minister in the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan until the elections of 2004, during which he implemented several extensive reforms, including issuing a new currency. This year, Ghani has sought the counsel of American political consultant, James Carville, who helped manage President Clinton's successful presidential bid in 1992. The two have tried to model Ghani's campaign off President Obama's 2008 run, calling his campaign "A New Beginning," and pledging to provide an alternative to "years of misrule."

Ramazan Bashardost

Labeled by some as "Afghanistan's Ralph Nader," Bashardost has virtually no chance of winning the election, but has the potential to capture enough votes from Karzai to force a second-round runoff. Bashardost's campaign office consists of a single tent pitched across the street from the Afghan Parliament, set up as a symbol of what he considers the inaccessibility of government. An ethnic Hazara born in Ghazni Province, he served a brief stint as Karzai's Planning Minister from 2004-2005, until he was pressured to resign after openly criticizing the government, particularly over its misuse of aid from international agencies. After his resignation, Basahardost ran for Parliament in 2006, receiving the third-highest vote total among nearly 400 parliamentary candidates. As a Hazara, Bashardost has the potential to command the votes of the Shiite ethnic group that makes up as much as 20 percent of the country's electorate.

Shahla Ata

A Pashtun born in Kandahar Province, Ata is one of two female presidential candidates and a current member of Parliament. Ata lived in Pakistan and the U.S. until the Taliban lost power, after which she returned to Afghanistan and was elected to Parliament in 2006. To many, Ata symbolizes faith in the election system, taking part in a process where she could easily be targeted and killed for running as a woman. Ata is running on a socialist-like platform, following in the footsteps of former Afghan President Mohammad Daud Khan, who was killed in a 1978 coup.

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