Afghanistan's Next President Will Be ...
Afghanistan's presidential election on Saturday will usher in a host of important changes: incumbent Hamid Karzai is stepping aside, it's not clear who will replace him, and the vote will mark the first time the country has ever swapped leaders at the ballot box.
Karzai won the two elections (2004 and 2009) held since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, but is barred by term limits from running again.
Eleven candidates initially entered the race to succeed him and three have since dropped out. The remaining eight have been crisscrossing the country holding rallies and meeting influential powerbrokers.
The Taliban have staged a number of high-profile attacks in Kabul against election commission offices in an effort to fulfill their pledge to disrupt the elections. They've also attacked places where foreigners are staying, prompting some of the international election observers to leave the country.
Still, all indications suggest Afghans intend to vote in large numbers. There were long lines at voter registration centers and some were still waiting to sign up when the deadline expired.
Wednesday is the final day of active campaigning. An election law requires them to stop for a two-day break before the vote.
Unlike in the U.S., where election results are often available within minutes of polls closing, it will take several days before initial results are known and it won't be until April 20 that the official count will be released.
And it doesn't end there. After that, there will be several weeks of reviews and challenges. Past elections have been plagued by fraud. If after all of that, no candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff between the top two.
Analysts say the race is now between the following three:
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, 53, an ophthalmologist who served as foreign minister in the Karzai government from 2001-2005. He split with Karzai and became the leading political opposition figure in the country. He was the main challenger to Karzai on the 2009 presidential ballot, getting 30 percent of the vote in the first round. He dropped out of the runoff election with Karzai, claiming the process was rigged against him.
Dr. Zalmay Rassoul, 70, has served in several top posts, including foreign minister, national security adviser and minister of civil aviation. A polyglot, he studied in France, where he received his medical degree. He is unmarried and has no children, which is extremely unusual in Afghanistan. The soft-spoken politician is widely viewed as Karzai's choice as a successor, though the incumbent president has not endorsed any candidate.
Ashraf Ghani, 64, is one of the leading technocrats in Afghanistan. He has served as finance minister and as a World Bank official. He holds a doctorate from Columbia University and taught at several American universities. He is relatively well-known and popular in the West, but in the 2009 election he managed only 3 percent of the vote and finished fourth.
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