Some 40 candidates are running for president in Afghanistan's elections on August 20 [GETTY] 

In the final days before millions in Afghanistan begin to vote in the country's second democratic presidential election since a US-led invasion ousted the Taliban in 2001, candidates for the top job have gone into eleventh hour campaigning to try and win over undecided voters.

They are trying to sway an electorate which has been largely caustic but responsive to a sales pitch that involves change.

special report
Al Jazeera's in depth look at the presidential poll
Though some Afghans say they have felt qualitative improvements in the health care, education and foreign trade sectors, they have voiced concerns about unemployment and a persistent Taliban threat in the rest of the country. 

Socio-economic development has yet to reach most of Afghanistan beyond Kabul.

In the east and south, UK and US forces have been locked in fierce combat with a regrouped and resurgent Taliban force.

On Saturday, just as candidates were winding up their campaigns, a Taliban suicide car bombing struck at the headquarters of Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Kabul's diplomatic area.

The Taliban quickly followed up with a threat that they would attack polling stations on election day, August 20.

Karzai has been blamed for the spiralling violence and few have kind words to say about his government.

Many have voiced their criticism of the government's inability to combat corruption and the failure to meet the security and economic needs of its people.

Raging debates

Karzai is expected to win, but short of a 51 per cent majority [GETTY]
Local TV channels have given plenty of air time to the 40-odd candidates and debates are raging daily on Tolo, Ariana and Noor, a few among the slew of privately-funded TV channels launched in recent years.

Panelists are invited to lambaste Karzai's record, praise his achievements or grill his challengers on how they plan to do better.

According to most unofficial polls, Karzai appears to be ahead of the pack, but his lead has been threatened by leading contenders Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank executive, who is trailing in third place.

Analysts in Kabul have divided the remaining candidates into three broad categories: those who actually aim at winning; those who are in the race only to gain a post in the new administration or financial compensations by making deals with the top contenders at the 11th hour; and finally, the totally unknown candidates who simply use the forum to introduce themselves in the Afghan political arena.

Possible run-off

Despite popular discontent with the government, it is widely believed that Karzai will garner the greatest number of votes, but not the 51 per cent required for a victory in the first round. This means that there will probably be a run-off at a later date.

Ahmed Zia Massoud, the current vice-president of Afghanistan, explained why he chose not to run for another term with Karzai, despite what he concedes are some major achievements during his tenure.

These include raising the GDP, allowing for the emergence of privately-owned media, and improving the telecommunications sector.

"It was my choice not to run as a vice-president with President Karzai, because there were a lot of things on which we did not see eye to eye,"  he says.

"There were a lot of economic and security policies that I wanted to implement and Karzai did not agree. They kept delaying."

Hoping for change

Karzai has been blamed for lack of security and a continuing war with the Taliban [REUTERS]
He adds: "Nothing was done to improve the security situation and this gave way for the Taliban to grow stronger across the country. President Karzai wasn't sure of what he wanted to do. He invited the Taliban for peace talks and there was a point where he wanted to fight them. He did neither properly."

Massoud says little was done to combat corruption as well.

In spite of his frustration with the outgoing administration, Massoud insists that he is maintaining a neutral stance in the forthcoming elections and is reluctant to voice his support for one candidate over another.

There are many, however, who are hoping for a change in administration and leadership, which has largely been viewed by the people as a puppet of the West, notably the US.

But just as Karzai is often seen as Washington's man, his main contenders, Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani - both of whom enjoy sizable constituencies - are also believed to enjoy foreign backing.

Show the money

Helena Malikyar, an expert in Afghan state-building, says regulations over sources of campaign financing have been lax.

"There are stories about 'wuluswals' (district chiefs) and governors handing out money to village chiefs and mullahs, even gold bangles for their wives on behalf of some candidates. Where is all this money coming from?" she says.

"The lack of capacity or political will to implement regulation over campaign financing is one of the main reasons why elections in Afghanistan are not being free and fair. This also paves the way for foreign intervention."

Although some have speculated that Abdullah enjoys support from Iran and Russia, a source close to the ophthalmologist-cum-politician insists that his campaign is funded mainly by private local businessmen.

Karzai's critics have also said that he is favoured by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, a charge the incumbent's campaign has denied.

Many in Afghanistan also fear that Pakistan has preferred candidates, although they may not be in a position to dole out as much funding as other countries with a stake in the outcome.

Malikyar is concerned that regional powers could be influencing the outcome of the elections.

"If this is the case, cash is being spread around to fund other candidates who may be trailing further behind, simply to help prevent a victory in the first round, and push the elections to a runoff at a later date," Malikyar says.

"A run-off, then, would lend more legitimacy to a Karzai victory."

Avoiding social crisis

There are fears that a run-off could fuel protests in Afghanistan [AFP]
Massoud, the current vice-president, says the authorities must exert maximum effort to overcome any threat which may rise in the event of a run-off.

Sources in Kabul say there are fears of demonstrations in the streets if candidates are unhappy with the polling results, much like what happened in Iran in June.

"The people of Afghanistan believe that calm and stability in the country is important," Massoud says.

"It is pretty clear by now that there will probably be a second round of elections, and this is very positive. Stability is important and economic development is important for the people of Afghanistan; they don't want a social crisis."

"What government?"

The slow pace of development over the last few years has contributed to the continued role of tribal and ethnic issues in politics, but there are signs that the country will transcend these factors over time.

Afghan officials speaking off the record have expressed concern about the effect that pressure from "radical groups" may have on the country's nascent democracy.

They hope that the August 20 elections will produce a unified government with a strong mandate to pull the country back from violence and nurture a grassroots democratic initiative rooted in Afghan values.

But not every one is confident that the current political system in Afghanistan is working for the people.

"What government does Afghanistan have?" a middle-aged woman in a crowded bazaar in Kabul asks.

She points to a myriad of ramshackle houses built on the side of a mountain and bemoans the absence of basic public services.

"The people in those houses still have no water, no electricity. Even in the winter, they must go down on foot to collect water and bring it home.

"What has the government done for the people of Afghanistan in the past eight years?"

Source: Al Jazeera