Why Afghanistan's elections are a critical test of peace
As international troops begin to leave Afghanistan and violence continues, the world is watching this crucial vote
PRESIDENTIAL elections are due to be held in Afghanistan on 5 April, marking possibly the most significant political development in the country since the fall of the Taliban 12 years ago.
In what is expected to be a crucial year for Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai will step down in the country's first change of leadership for ten years. International troops are also expected to withdraw from the country, and Afghan national security will take over.
The Taliban has already claimed responsibility for a string of attacks in the run-up to the election – the latest left nine dead at the heavily guarded Serena hotel in Kabul last week.
With ten candidates, 12 million eligible voters and the threat of more Taliban-orchestrated violence looming, the election marks a significant milestone in Afghanistan's post 2001 development.
Why is it so important?
The result of this election will determine not only the future of Afghanistan, but also perceptions of whether America's decade-long involvement in the country has been a success. The war in Afghanistan is the longest in American history and has cost over a trillion dollars. It has also resulted in thousands of deaths, including those of 3,428 coalition troops, 448 of those were UK military personnel, according to icasualties.org.
The election provides a critical opportunity for "a renewal of legitimacy, a boost in confidence and a start to correcting the ineffective and corrupt governance that characterises Afghanistan", Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow with the Centre for 21st Century Security and Intelligence told the International Business Times.
Since 2004, Afghanistan has experienced two presidential elections, marred by allegations of widespread fraud. The upcoming vote is seen as the country's chance to prove to the international community that it is now able to hold free, fair and democratic elections without international assistance.
Security is by far the biggest challenge faced by organisers. Earlier this month, the Taliban vowed to attack polling stations and rallies across the country, saying that members of the public who attempt to vote "will be in danger", The Guardian reports. As a result, low voter turnout, especially in rural areas in the north of the country could undermine the election process.
There are also fears that vote-rigging, which was so prominent in the previous two elections, will be repeated. Regional political expert Miagul Wasiq argues that "the success of the election depends on whether it is free and fair". If that is not the case, says Wasiq, "it wouldn't matter which of the three favourites comes out on top".
As a result of the recent Taliban attack on the Serena hotel, two international election monitoring groups have withdrawn their staff from Afghanistan due to security concerns. EU monitors will remain in the country, Reuters reports.
Who is running?
According to local observers, three candidates have emerged as front-runners. They are Abdullah Abdullah, Zalmay Rassoul, and Ashraf Ghani.
Runner-up in the 2009 election, Abdullah Abdullah is a firm favourite. He is seen as the most 'pro-Western' of the candidates and supports the signing of a continued security pact with the US. However, his mixed Pashtun and Tajik ethnicity in a tribal-centric nation means his victory is not guaranteed.
The most controversial candidate, former foreign minister Zalmay Rassoul, is a close ally of Karzai, a fellow Pashtun and a former-warlord with a previous links to al-Qaeda and an "anti-American agenda", according to the International Business Times. He could end up being "a consensus candidate" among many political factions,  AP reports.
Ashraf Ghani is an academic and a former employee at the World Bank and the UN. He has been described as a "temperamental technocrat".
How will the elections work?
The elections will be held in two rounds; if a majority is not achieved in the first round, the top two candidates will go head to head. As elections results can take anywhere between one and six months to emerge, a winner is not expected to be declared before July.
The election will be run by the Independent Election Commission. Security will be managed mostly by Afghan police and army, with the departing ISAF troops offering logistical help, the Guardian reports.
Challenges facing the candidates
The winner will face a long list of challenges including endemic corruption, security issues, poverty, human rights abuses, the increasing opium trade and how to deal with the Taliban.
Commentators argue that a settlement with the Taliban is crucial to lasting peace and security. Afghanistan needs "agreements that bring them into the political system rather than leave them out in the cold as enemies", argues Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, writing for the BBC.
President Karzai has stated in the past that peace talks with the Taliban are crucial to the formation of a strong central government and to ensure that "Afghanistan will not be divided into fiefdoms".
The Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) is another key issue facing the next president. Karzai has so far refused to sign the security pact, which would allow a smaller US-led force to remain in Afghanistan on a "train, advise and assist mission" beyond 2014. It is now expected that the decision will be passed on to Karzai's successor.