AP Photo/Rahmat Gul
An Afghan man casts his vote at a polling station in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 5, 2014. Afghan voters lined up for blocks at polling stations nationwide on Saturday, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban to cast ballots in what promises to be the nation's first democratic transfer of power. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul) Rahmat Gul/Associated Press
Voter turnout is reportedly brisk in Afghanistan, where eight candidates are running to succeed Hamid Karzai as president.
Heavy rain and worries about the threat of violence by the Taliban don't appear to be deterring Afghans from casting ballots in the historic election. Voters lined up for blocks at polling stations nationwide.
It's the war-ravaged country's first democratic transfer of power.
If no candidate gets at least 50 per cent of the vote on Saturday, the two top finishers will face each other in a runoff vote.
With three of them considered frontrunners, nobody is expected to get the majority needed for an outright victory so a runoff is widely expected.
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the election and recently attacked an elections office in Kabul, as well as a guesthouse used by foreigners in the capital.
Hundreds of thousands of Afghan police and soldiers fanned out across the country, searching cars at checkpoints and blocking vehicles from getting close to polling stations. Some voters were searched three times in Kabul, and text messages were blocked in an apparent attempt to prevent candidates from last-minute campaigning.
On Friday, veteran Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed and Canadian AP reporter Kathy Gannon was wounded when an Afghan policeman opened fire while the two were sitting in their car in the eastern city of Khost. The two were at a security forces base, waiting to move in a convoy of election workers delivering ballots.
Niedringhaus, 48, an internationally acclaimed German photographer, was killed instantly, while Gannon, 60, was hospitalized in Kabul and is in stable condition.
Karzai, who has led the country since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, is constitutionally barred from a third term. He cast his ballot at a high school near the presidential palace.
"Today for us, the people of Afghanistan, is a very vital day that will determine our national future. We the people of Afghanistan will elect our provincial council members and our president by our secret votes," he said, his finger stained with the indelible ink used to prevent people from voting twice.
Karzai's tenure has been heavily criticized as he has failed to end the endemic corruption and poverty in the country, which remains mired in violence after nearly 13 years of war. As international combat forces prepare to withdraw by the end of this year, the country is so unstable that the very fact the crucial elections are being held is touted as one of Karzai's few successes.
Here are the candidates who are vying to succeed Karzai, starting with the three men considered the top contenders:
Abdullah Abdullah: Having gained 31 percent of the vote as runner-up to Karzai in the disputed 2009 elections, Abdullah has an advantage in name recognition and political organization. He was a close aide to the late Ahmad Shah Masood, the Northern Alliance rebel commander famed for his resistance to Soviet occupation and the Taliban. Abdullah has a strong following among ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan's north, but his perceived weak support among Pashtuns — Afghanistan's largest ethnic group at 42 per cent -- could keep him from gaining a majority of votes, even though he is half-Pashtun.
Zalmai Rassoul: A former foreign minister, Rassoul has been national security adviser to the government and is seen as close to Karzai. He could end up being a consensus candidate among many political factions. A Pashtun like Karzai, he has a medical degree and is fluent in five languages, including French, English and Italian. He lived in Italy for many years with Afghanistan's deposed King Zahir Shah, who died in Kabul in 2007.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai: Ghani is a former finance minister who ran in the 2009 presidential elections but received just 3 per cent of the vote. A well-known academic with a reputation as a somewhat temperamental technocrat, Ghani chairs a commission in charge of transitioning responsibility for security from the U.S.-led coalition to Afghan forces. Ghani also worked at the World Bank.
Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf: An influential former lawmaker and religious scholar, Sayyaf is one of the more controversial candidates among Afghanistan's foreign allies because of his past as a warlord during the 1990s civil war and allegations of past links to radical jihadists including Osama bin Laden. As a Pashtun and charismatic speaker, he may appeal to Afghanistan's large number of religious conservatives.
Qutbuddin Hilal: An engineer by training with experience in Afghanistan's defence ministry, Hilal once headed a military commission tasked with uniting jihadi organizations. He twice served as first vice president — in 1993 and 1996 — and also served as deputy prime minister. He has been endorsed by the leader of Hezb-i-Islami chief, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, labelled a terrorist by the United States and a target of the U.S.-led coalition.
Gul Agha Sherzai: Earned the nickname of "the bulldozer" for serving as public works and transport minister. Previously a mujahedeen commander in Kandahar, he also has served as governor of Kandahar and later governor of Nangarhar. He was the only governor to meet U.S. President Barak Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign.
Hedayat Amin Arsala: Born in Kabul to an influential Afghan family, Amin was the first Afghan to join the World Bank, in 1969. He worked there for 18 years before joining the fight against the Soviet occupation. Arsala later served as finance minister, briefly as foreign minister, and after the collapse of the Taliban was selected as commerce minister. He also headed the Independent Commission of Administrative Reforms, the National Statistics Commission and the Economic Cooperation Committee. For years, he served as a senior adviser to Karzai.
Mohammad Daoud Sultanzai: A pilot by training, Sultanzai defected to Germany after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and then settled in the U.S. He returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban and went on to serve as a member of Parliament. Sultanzai also is known as an Afghan political commentator and talk show host.