Only one will win -- but all five look certain to figure on the Afghan political scene for years to come.
Key supporters: Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Hazaras
Background: The current Afghan president was the darling of the Bush administration, which played well at first with his constituency, who felt that U.S. support would soon translate into U.S. dollars.
Now, eight years later, most Afghans have not seen the benefit of the foreign presence. Karzai is blamed for a multitude of problems: the failure of aid programs, deteriorating security situation, booming corruption, and an inability to rein in foreign troops, whose heavy-handed actions have precipitated a backlash and curried support for the insurgency, especially in the south. Karzai is still the front-runner, most likely due to the Afghan penchant for picking the winning side. He has used and, many say, abused the liberal advantages of incumbency and has outspent his rivals by a wide margin. But Karzai's support is broad, not deep, and could evaporate quickly if he begins to look vulnerable.
Odds of winning: High
Hometown: Contested -- either Kabul or the Panjshir Valley
Key supporters: Tajiks
Background: A trained ophthalmologist, Abdullah is suave, at ease with the press, and speaks several languages, including English. Although running as an independent, Abdullah was the pick of the National United Front, a loose coalition of parties opposed to Karzai. He has a strong following in the north and in the provinces directly north of Kabul; as his popularity grows, so does the possibility of his tipping a swing vote away from Karzai.
Abdullah's greatest asset is his close association with the legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, whose handsome, brooding face graces many of Abdullah's campaign posters. But Massoud, who was assassinated two days before the September 11 attacks, might prove to be just as much of a liability to his former spokesman. Called the Lion of the Panjshir, he is revered as a national hero by a large part of the population, but reviled by the Pashtuns -- who see him as no better than the rest of the warlords who tore the country apart during the civil war from 1992 to 1996.
Odds of winning: Slim, but growing
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai
Hometown: Logar province
Key supporters: Pashtuns and intellectuals
Background: The former finance minister does not suffer from an excess of modesty. When asked what went wrong with the Karzai administration, of which he was once a prominent part, Ghani said simply, "I left."
A brilliant theoretician, Ghani has the best shot at getting Afghanistan back on track, say many informed observers. He has detailed, coherent plans for fixing the economy, dealing with the international community, attracting investment, and creating jobs for Afghans. He has a good track record as an administrator, but is not an adept politician, making his plans moot unless he teams up with a likely winner. Ghani has stated publicly that he will not accept a position in a Karzai government.
Ghani's ego seems to be at least as prominent as his intellect, and it might be difficult to convince him to accept anything less than the top spot. Still, insiders say that he is in close contact with Washington, which, despite disclaimers, seems to be trying to broker an alliance between Ghani and Abdullah. He has also brought in Washington insider James Carville, the campaign strategist credited with Bill Clinton's 1992 win, as an advisor.
Odds of winning: Next to nil
Key supporters: Virtually no Afghan supporters, but popular with the international community
Background: This parliamentarian, who is not well known at home, has risen to campaign prominence thanks to visits from several prominent international guests, among them EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana and U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, who met with him as one of a trio of "leading contenders," along with Abdullah and Ghani. Yasini is much more popular with the international community than with his compatriots, but this might be enough to gain him a prominent position in the new administration.
Yasini is a former deputy minister for counternarcotics and is currently first deputy speaker of the parliament. This does not explain the fascination that the international community seems to have for him. He is frequently mentioned as one of the top three, though this assessment would not be shared by many in the electorate.
Odds of winning: zero
Hometown: Ghazni province
Key supporters: Broad-based support among those disgruntled with other candidates; also popular among his fellow Hazaras
Background: This firebrand reformer is running an electrifying campaign, fulfilling the dark-horse role of raising questions that the mainstream candidates do not want to and cannot answer.
Driving around the country in a rickety bus, meeting with laborers and farmers in remote corners of the country, the outspoken Basher Dost lambastes almost all of his rivals with equal fervor. He has bitterly criticized the small army of nongovernmental organizations that exist, he says, just to bilk the Afghan people of money that should rightfully be theirs, and he decries the lavish cars and homes of his fellow parliamentarians.
He is running an unorthodox campaign, on a very thin shoestring. His headquarters are in a tent pitched outside the parliament, and in his first two weeks of campaigning he said he spent about $200. And though he is too colorful to ever become mainstream, he looks sure to serve as Afghanistan's populist conscience for some years to come.
Odds of winning: Next to nil