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KABUL – On Tuesday night millions of Afghans watched as five candidates for president faced off in their first official debate.

The debate – which marked a dramatic contrast to the days of the harsh Taliban government which outlawed television – kicked off Afghanistan’s ultimate test of democracy. Its people are about to elect a new leader as the country struggles to maintain stability while facing a large-scale drawdown of NATO forces.

Eleven contenders are vying for president, and their vast differences showcase the complexities of Afghan politics. Doctors and scholars are running alongside notorious former jihadist warlords, some of whom stand a real chance of ruling the nation.

Reminiscent of a traditional American presidential debate, the five candidates participating in the debate Tuesday stood side by side at podiums for two hours, racing a timer to make their points.

A big issue of discussion among the candidates was the bilateral security agreement, a long-term pact between the U.S. and Afghanistan, which President Hamid Karzai has so far refused to sign. Another central point of discussion was the prospect of brokering peace with the Taliban.

Fears that violence could disrupt the election have been looming.

On Saturday two of presidential candidate Dr. Abdullah Abdullah’s staffers were gunned down outside of their office in the western province of Herat.

The election, scheduled for April 5, will mark the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history. Afghanistan’s constitution requires Karzai to hand over power, as he has served two terms.

NBC's Ahmad Bukhari contributed to this report.