Kabul, Afghanistan - With Afghanistan’s run-off elections set for Saturday, both Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani - two vastly different candidates - are preparing to take on some of the country’s most challenging issues.
Abdullah, a former mujahedeen who fought alongside Ahmed Shah Massoud against Soviet forces in the 1980s, once served as foreign minister under Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Ghani, in contrast, grew up in Afghanistan but later went to the US for his master's degree. Shortly after working at the World Bank, he became the chancellor of Kabul University and served under Karzai as finance minister from 2002 to 2004.
The labels of "jihadi" vs "academic" are stereotypes that have been largely challenged by both candidates during their campaigns over the past eight months.
Ghani, according to Saad Mohseni, the CEO of MOBY group, has become more comfortable travelling the country, wearing a turban and the traditional salwar kameez. Abdullah is no longer just seen as a jihadi but also an effective former minister with a worldly vision, Mohseni said.
"I think effectively both candidates have moved to the middle," Mohseni said. "I don't think those labels apply as much as they would have say 13 years ago."
In the first round of voting in April, Abdullah took the lead with 44.5 percent of the vote, with Ghani trailing behind at 31.5 percent.
The elections drew a surprisingly large turnout - more than 7 million people participated out of an estimated 12 million eligible voters.
According to Nader Nadery, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit and chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation, the high voter turnout confirmed that Afghans don’t want to return to the country’s violent past and they do not approve of the Taliban and the killing of civilians.
"We have seen a clear sense of defiance, demonstrating itself through large turnout for registration and into election day," Nadery told Al Jazeera.
Observers from around the country say that after months of election campaigning, Afghans are fatigued and a lower turnout is to be expected this time around.
Several Afghan officials who were not given permission to speak to the press told Al Jazeera they fear ethnic and sectarian divisions in the government - despite both candidates trying to sell a vision of a broad-based coalition.
"Our biggest concern is that neither of these candidates has the power to bring people together like Karzai," one government source said. "Ghani’s people are looking to work more for the Pashtuns and if we see Abdullah, well, he will bring more Tajiks to the palace. This is a big concern for officials at the moment."
Mahmoud Saikal, an adviser to Abdullah, said stability, including the political transition and peace process, security and economic development are Abdullah’s three main focuses, along with corruption, which he referred to as "the mother of them all".
"Our motto has been 'Rule of Law,'" Saikal told Al Jazeera. "If we don't have the rule of law nothing will work."
In an interview to the AFP last year, Ghani said he envisions an "economically interdependent" Afghanistan that "serves as a crossroad of a vibrant Asia continental economy". However, he stressed, the next five years are going to be difficult.
"First we need to tackle our widespread corruption, managing this is going to require an immense amount of effort, will and concentration," Ghani said.
Saikal emphasised inclusiveness of all parties involved in the peace process. Over the past few years, the process has very much turned into "a Mr Karzai peace process," he said, and this is something Abdullah wants to change.
"First, we will review the policy for the peace process, then we will quickly launch a national consultation and make sure that we unify Afghans on this process," Saikal said.
According to Waheed Mozhdah, a political analyst and former Taliban official, Abdullah is in a better situation than Ghani to further peace negotiations.
"The Taliban never want to talk to Pashtuns," he told Al Jazeera. "They think they are representative of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan. They don’t want to share the Pashtun power. Because of this, I think Abdullah has a better chance," he said of the candidate who draws support from the Tajik community.
Abdullah’s team stresses foreign policy with an emphasis on mending ties with Pakistan and other neighbouring countries. While also important to Ghani, said his aid, he is more inclusive of India, China and other parts of Asia.
"There are five layers of focus," Ghani’s aide, who wished to not be named, said. "First is the relationship with our neighbours - this includes China, India and the Gulf countries. After comes the United States and Europe and a focus on international institutions such as the World Bank. Our fifth layer, is international investment entities. They are vital for foreign investment in Afghanistan."
Maintaining and funding Afghanistan’s 350,000 security personnel relies heavily on the signing of security agreements with the US and NATO countries in order to keep troops in the country after 2014. Securing these agreements is a top priority for both candidates, their advisors said.
The biggest concern for the vast majority of the population is the economy, employment and job creation. The World Bank is predicting a fiscal gap of $7.8bn per year between 2015 and 2018.
Lobbying the international community over aid, improving employment programmes, and increasing productivity will be key to Afghanistan's economic future, said Saikal. When it comes to agriculture, proper water management agreements with neighbours will also be necessary.
Meanwhile, Ghani emphasises mobilising the youth, and bringing money back into the country. Revamping the education system and training the youth are top priorities for him.
"I think there is something like less than 100 geology students in Afghanistan," Ghani’s aide said. "And we have [mineral] reserves worth 3 trillion dollars."
The US and Karzai have avoided publicly backing any candidate. Afghan officials, however, told Al Jazeera that Abdullah might have the most support.
"Karzai is definitely with Abdullah. He is worried about his own interests. Also, because he is a Pashtun, Abdullah will need him, whereas Ghani does not," the government official said.
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