With the campaign for the April 5 Afghan presidential election in full swing, coalition- building in the fragmented nation has emerged as a key strategy for winning votes.
The result of generations of war and the absence of broad-based political parties in Afghanistan, alliances among powerful individuals, tribal, ethnic and sectarian factions are viewed as the key to electoral success.
Wadir Safi, a political science professor at Kabul University, observes that the culture of political alliance-building in Afghanistan evolved during the past decade, when former warlords and regional strongmen were seen as guarantors of delivering ballots.
"Unfortunately, the foundation of the current Afghan government established during the [UN-sponsored] Bonn Conference [in 2001] was laid on the basis of allocating [cabinet] seats to different ethnic groups and [warring factions]," he told RFE/RL’s Afghan service.
In Safi’s view, the Western-backed government has failed to promote meaningful institutional development and state-building over the past decade. "Now every ethnic group and faction wants to ensure its share in power," he said. "This means that coalition-building and endorsement by powerful figures are a basic requirement for success in the forthcoming election."
Given their broad political support and intricate alliances, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah have emerged as the leading candidates.
Ghani, a western-educated technocrat and former World Bank executive, has chosen Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord, as his first running mate. Sarwar Danish, a former justice minister and ethnic Hazara, is his second running mate.
Ghani, a Pashtun, is a critic of President Hamid Karzai who has enjoyed a reputation as a leading Afghan reformer. His alliance with Dostum is viewed as an effort to capture the former warlord’s support in Uzbek communities in northern Afghanistan. Danish is expected to attract votes from Afghanistan's predominately Shi’ite Hazaras.
Despite criticism over the unlikely union, Ghani continues to attract support among the Afghan intelligentsia and Pashtun elite. Anwarul Haq Ahadi, a former commerce minister, says he supports Ghani because of his vision. "The main reason behind my support is that he has a comprehensive plan for reforms. I think a majority of Afghans will support him because of that."
Ahadi's father-in-law and one of Afghanistan's leading Sufi spiritual leaders, Sayed Ahmad Gilani, has also endorsed Ghani. Another Sufi leader and former president, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, endorsed Ghani on February 24. His seemingly secular credentials have also attracted the country's Ismaili leader, Sayed Mansour Naderi, whose followers are known for voting in blocs.
Two recently formed secular political parties, the National Solidarity Party of Afghanistan and the Rights and Justice Party, have endorsed Ghani, as have the minority Sikhs in Jalalabad.
Abdullah is considered another key contender, having been the the runner-up to President Hamid Karzai in the 2009 presidential election. He is supported by most leaders of the Islamist Jamiat-e Islami party, which attracts a sizeable following among Tajiks in Afghanistan.
Abdullah has chosen as his first running mate Mohammad Mohaqiq, a leader of the Islamic Unity Party of the People of Afghanistan, a predominantly Hazara party. Mohammad Khan, a Pashtun engineer and a senior leader of the Hizb-e Islami Party's faction, lead by economy minister Abdul Hadi Argahndiwal, is also on the ticket.
Abdullah has secured the support of the Shi'ite Harakat-e-Islami Party, the Pashtun-based Tribal Solidarity Council of Afghanistan, and a number of civil society groups, student unions and lawmakers.
Ahmad Behzad, a lawmaker and Abdullah supporter, says the coalition appeals to many Afghans. "Based on my reading of the Afghan society, Abdullah will secure a decisive win in this election."
President Karzai is seen as retaining influence over the polls despite being barred by the Afghan constitution from seeking a third term. Karzai has reiterated his neutrality, but he is seen as leaning towards his former foreign minister, Zalmai Rasul.
The western-educated technocrat Rasul has picked as one of his running mates former vice president Ahmad Zia Massoud, whose influence derives from the popularity of his slain brother and legendary anti-Taliban commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud.
His second vice presidential candidate, Habiba Surabi, is a former governor of the central Afghan province of Bamiyan. She is seen as attracting votes from fellow Hazaras.
Reports in the Afghan media recently speculated that Karzai's elder brother and presidential contender, Qayum Karzai, is likely to join forces with Rasul, a move that would consolidate votes in the Pashtun heartland in southern Afghanistan.
Political analyst Ahmad Idrees Rahmani says that Karzai has created conditions that enable him to have an upper hand in determining his successor. "He is naturally placed to be a kingmaker and he is setting the scene to ensure that he becomes a kingmaker."
Omar Sharifi, another observer, agrees. "There are signs that he is trying to play a de facto role as a kingmaker." Sharifi added, "He might use subtle ways to influence the election commission."
The list of presidential candidates also includes prominent Islamist leaders Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf and Qutbuddin Hilal. Sayyaf has joined forces with former energy minister Ismail Khan. Both retain robust political machines and have loyal supporters among the electorate.
Hilal, on the other hand, began as a weak contender but was recently endorsed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the exiled leader of Hizb-e Islami, which is one of the largest Islamist movements in Afghanistan. Despite Hekmatyar being designated a "global terrorist" by Washington, Hizb-e Islami remains a disciplined political force that has enjoyed influence in the parliament and the Karzai administration.
Afghans are now keenly watching who among the 11 candidates will join forces. They have no doubt that the largest and most diverse coalition will assume power after the April 5 vote.