Image: Election posters in Kabul
Emilio Morenatti  /  AP
Streets in Kabul, Afghanistan, are plastered with posters of presidential and provincial council candidates ahead of elections on Aug. 20.
updated 7/16/2009 6:16:36 PM ET 2009-07-16T22:16:36

Critics decry his government as corrupt and ineffectual, the economy is in the tank and the country is racked by an insurgency led by the very people he helped oust from power eight years ago.

Nevertheless, President Hamid Karzai is the odds-on favorite to finish first in Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election. The best scenario for his opponents is that the 40 others in the race — including two women — can win enough votes to deny him a majority. That would force a runoff — in which Karzai would be vulnerable if the other hopefuls can rally around a single alternate candidate.

Whatever the outcome, President Barack Obama hopes the election will allow the U.S. to "transition to a different phase" in the conflict, handing over more responsibility to Afghans and eventually withdrawing American troops. Obama has sent thousands of reinforcements to Afghanistan to help bolster security for the balloting.

In a chaotic country gripped by war, it is difficult to predict how the candidates will fare. Few reliable polls have been made public, although many Western diplomats believe the race is Karzai's to lose.

A survey conducted in May for the International Republican Institute found that only 31 percent of 3,200 Afghans questioned said they would vote for Karzai — well below the 55 percent he won the 2004 election. Still, he was far ahead of his second place rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah with 7 percent. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Karzai's campaign staff dismiss that poll as outdated. Since the survey, Karzai has forged alliances with numerous tribal leaders and elders from the country's ethnic communities. Karzai can probably count on winning most of the votes cast by his fellow Pashtuns, who make up about 40 percent of the population and most of the Taliban.

Karzai, the urbane English-speaking son of a Pashtun tribal leader, came into power shortly after the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime and had the strong backing of the Bush administration. He was one of the few Pashtun leaders to oppose the Taliban inside Afghanistan during the U.S.-led invasion.

But his standing has fallen hard since then. Diplomats in Kabul say Karzai has shied away from making hard choices to end the endemic corruption and increasing violence sweeping his country.

Karzai vows talks with Taliban
If he wins a second term, Karzai has promised to open negotiations with the Taliban to end the war and focus on building roads, improving education, boosting the economy and shoring up agriculture. Many of those goals are shared by other candidates.

In the weeks before the balloting, Karzai's staff is working hard to try to avoid a runoff, which would be held Oct. 3 after the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

"We don't see much of a challenge in terms of somebody else winning the election, but we definitely don't want the election to go to a second round. We are working on making sure it does not," campaign spokesman Waheed Omar told The Associated Press. "I'm pretty sure this is going to be an easy win for the president."

Abdullah, meanwhile, scoffs at such predictions from Karzai's camp. The bearded, English-speaking ophthalmologist, whose father was Pashtun and whose mother was a Tajik, has been campaigning hard in the north and west of the country, hoping a big turnout there will offset Karzai's perceived advantage in the Pashtun heartland of the south.

Security is better in the Tajik areas where Abdullah is strong, suggesting turnout could be high there. Abdullah served as a close adviser to the late Ahmed Shah Massood, a charismatic leader of the Northern Alliance that resisted the ruling Taliban until the hardline Islamic movement was ousted from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

"I don't think they see or hear what is going on in this country," Abdullah said of Karzai's staff. "This is what you get once you are in isolation from the people. ... I'm not surprised that President Karzai is thinking like that."

If Karzai does manage to pull off a first-round victory, many of his key opponents will likely claim fraud and refuse to accept the outcome, especially if results in parts of the north and west do not match Abdullah's expectations.

Both Karzai and Abdullah have attracted crowds of thousands of supporters at campaign events around the country.

Abdullah, who has called for constitutional changes to bolster the role of parliament, said he would also like to win in the first round. "Change and hope. That's what the people want," he said.

Former World Bank official a wild card?
Some political analysts believe a combined ticket of Abdullah and former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani could defeat Karzai if it won the backing of other candidates.

Ghani is getting advice from Democratic Party strategist James Carville, who told the AP in a recent interview that "there is very little confidence in Afghanistan in Karzai as a leader."

Wadir Safi, a political scientist at Kabul University, is skeptical that Karzai can pull off a first-round victory.

Karzai has "divided his enemies, his opposition into different groups, and he has become the only strong candidate in that sense," Safi said. "But people see the last term, the practical works of the government. ... That's why it is very doubtful for me that he would be able to win it in the first round."

An American general who oversaw the NATO operation in Afghanistan predicted last week that Karzai would win re-election in the first round — and that Afghans would quickly lose faith in both him and the U.S. if he does not provide better leadership.

"I think the six months after the election will be critical for him, critical for that nation, in terms of what the people see him bringing to them," Gen. John Craddock said. "My fear, quite frankly, is that they will walk away from government at all levels. And we will be viewed as the problem."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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