A bitter, fraud-marred presidential election in 2014 pushed Afghanistan to the brink of civil war before a power-sharing deal was reached between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who became president and chief executive officer.
Five years on, even as 13 other candidates vie for the presidency, the race is shaping up again as a two-horse race between Ghani, a Western-educated technocrat, and Abdullah, a trained ophthalmologist who was a senior member of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance before the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.
As leaders of the deeply unpopular and fractured national-unity government, both men's reputations have been tarnished.
But with no viable challengers, they are front-runners in an election that features former mujahedin fighters, warlords, and communists.
With so much at stake in a two-way contest, observers warn of a possible repeat of the large-scale vote-rigging and fraud that marred the last presidential poll.
It’s a scenario that could ignite a protracted political crisis and potential intercommunal violence.
No 'Viable Challenger'
Ghani and Abdullah’s weak and unwieldly national-unity government (NUG) has proved unable to curb soaring violence, alleviate entrenched poverty, or tackle rampant government corruption since coming to power.
Under their watch, ethnic tensions and political infighting have spiraled while unemployment and militant violence have soared.
The withdrawal of most foreign combat troops at the end of 2014, decreasing economic aid and investment, and the rise of Islamic State (IS) extremists in Afghanistan in 2015 have been destabilizing factors. But both are in a weaker position than in 2014.
"Both candidates have a more difficult run with the electorate because of the fatigue with the NUG, the worsening security and economic situations, and also the lack of credibility of the elections in 2014 and the dismal outcomes from the last parliamentary elections [in 2018]," says Hameed Hakimi, a research associate at the London-based Chatham House think tank.
The absence of a credible challenger has propelled Ghani and Abdullah as front-runners.
Ghani and Abdullah were expected to face a stiff challenge from Hanif Atmar, the president’s powerful former national-security adviser. But his electoral ticket unraveled amid political infighting, clearing the path for a two-horse race. Atmar has said he will not support any other candidate.
“The political elites were unable to come up with a viable challenger,” says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the independent Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.
As a result, Ruttig says, Afghanistan’s political system has become “stagnant.”
As incumbents, Ghani and Abdullah have the added advantage of wielding power for five years, says Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan analyst and a consultant for the International Crisis Group.
“Both of them have installed allies in key positions across the government, although Ghani has been significantly more successful than Abdullah and now enjoys a high degree of control over the state apparatus,” Smith says.
Many of the presidential candidates have alleged that Ghani is manipulating the electoral process in his favor and using state resources for personal gain.
Ghani, 70, and Abdullah, 59, have sought new allies to help propel them to victory.
In a country where no ethnic group can dominate the political scene on its own, candidates cross ethnic lines to choose high-profile running mates who can marshal votes from different ethnic communities
A Pashtun, Ghani is from the country’s largest ethnic group. He has picked Amrullah Saleh, an ex-intelligence chief and one of the president’s fiercest critics, as one of two running mates. Saleh is a prominent ethnic Tajik, the second-largest ethnic group, with grassroots support among the youth. Ghani did not have a Tajik running mate in 2014.
Ghani controversially chose Abdul Rashid Dostum, the former ethnic Uzbek militia leader who has been accused of serious human rights violations, as his running mate in 2014.
But the two have fallen out since then and Dostum has left the country amid a criminal case launched against him.
Ghani has gained the support of Alem Sa’i, an ethnic Uzbek and a former governor of Jawzjan Province, to tap into the Uzbek voter base usually dominated by Dostum.
Dostum is now backing Abdullah.
Ghani’s other running mate is Sarwar Danish, an ethnic Hazara and a current vice president. The Hazara constitute the third-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Abdullah has attempted to seal two important voting blocs -- the Hazaras and Uzbeks that together constitute some 20 percent of the population -- by courting two longtime ethnic leaders.
Abdullah has gained the support of Mohammad Karim Khalili and Mohammad Mohaqeq, two powerful but controversial former Hazara warlords.
Abdullah’s running mates are Enayatullah Babur Farahmand, an ethnic Uzbek ally of Dostum, and Asadullah Sadati, a Hazara who is backed by Khalili, a former vice president.
Abdullah also has support from Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, a Pashtun and former finance minister. Ahadi supported Ghani in the 2014 vote but has since established his own party.
Abdullah’s standing among his own ethnic Tajik community has taken a hit. A prominent member of the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e Islami, Abdullah influence in the party has waned and he has lost the support of several party stalwarts.
"Ghani is targeting two key groups, the youth, through a social-media campaign, and community leaders,” says Ruttig. “Abdullah has concentrated on the usual ethno-political alliance building, mainly in the mujahedin camp.”
Hakimi says there has been a "regravitation" towards ethnic politics.
"Abdullah is trying to win the typical constituencies that are not going to vote a Pashtun candidate into office while Ghani has done the same by focusing almost entirely on reconnecting with the Pashtun voter base," he says.
Problems 'Worse Than Ever'
The bitter experience of 2014 has taught Ghani and Abdullah that the election does not end when the ballots have been cast.
“Both sides are bracing for a turbulent postelection period,” says Smith.
The factors underlying the fraudulent elections in 2014 -- systemic corruption, widespread insecurity, and a problematic electoral system -- have not been addressed. Many see another potential dispute. Other observers are expecting a record-low turnout.
“Some of the systemic problems are now worse than ever -- especially security, which appears to be putting greater pressure on the electoral process than during previous years,” says Smith.
More than 2,000 out of 7,000 polling stations will be closed due to the threat of militant attacks. In the past, the Taliban has bombed polling centers and targeted voters.
The September 28 vote will be the second time Afghanistan goes to the polls using biometric voter verification, a system that caused chaos during last October’s parliamentary elections when devices malfunctioned, went missing, or were not used by untrained electoral staff.
After Ghani was declared the winner of the runoff in 2014, Abdullah alleged mass-scale vote-rigging and his supporters threatened violence.
A recount was launched and hundreds of thousands of allegedly rigged votes were thrown out. But the final results were never published after the rivals reached an agreement brokered by the United States.
If no candidate receives a majority in the first-round vote -- a scenario considered unlikely -- a second round will be held on November 23 between the top two finishers.
"My biggest fear is who is going to do mediation if there is a serious dispute this time," says Hakimi. "Can we expect any interest, or indeed constructive involvement, from the Trump administration?"
Other observers say another postelection crisis is less likely.
"Although the problems persist, it’s unlikely to lead to a repeat of 2014," says Javid Ahmad, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. "All sides realize that given the shrinking U.S. presence, Afghanistan cannot afford more chaos."