KABUL Presidential candidates in Afghanistan begin two months of campaigning on Sunday for an election that Western allies hope will consolidate fragile stability as their forces prepare to leave after nearly 13 years of inconclusive war.
The Taliban have rejected the April 5 election and have already stepped up attacks to sabotage it. The militants will also be looking to capitalise if the vote is marred by rigging and feuding between rivals seeking to replace President Hamid Karzai, who can not run for a third term under Afghan law.
Whoever replaces him will inherit a country beset by deepening anxiety about security as most foreign troops prepare to pull out by the end of the year, leaving Afghan forces largely on their own to battle the insurgency.
Monthly attacks in the capital, Kabul, where candidates are expect to focus their efforts to win over women and young people, are at the highest since 2008, one embassy said in a recent confidential security report.
"This increase can be attributed to efforts towards the presidential elections," the embassy said.
Many Afghans say they are taking precautions.
"I have already advised my family to cut down unnecessary travel and never attend any big meetings," said Fawad Saleh, a barber in the Shar-e Naw area of Kabul. "The Taliban will reach any campaign and they will react violently."
While Afghanistan has no majority community, ethnic Pashtuns are considered the largest community and ethnicity will play a big role in deciding the next president.
Western diplomats expect the first round to be split between one of several prominent Pashtuns and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik who appeals to that voter base and who was Karzai's main challenger in the last election in 2009.
Two of Abdullah's campaigners in western Herat province were shot dead in their car on Saturday, police officials said, in another grim pointer to possible violence ahead.
"This coward action constitutes a violent intimidation of electoral candidates and their supporters, and cannot be tolerated," the United Nations said in a statement.
CAMPAIGN BRINGS HOPE
The most ambitious efforts to conduct opinion polls, which were funded by the United States, have been cancelled over accusations Washington was seeking to manipulate the outcome.
But a first set of polling results in December put Western-leaning intellectual and ethnic Pashtun former finance minister Ashraf Ghani in the lead ahead of Abdullah.
Other front-running Pashtun candidates include Karzai's brother, Qayum Karzai, and former Islamist warlord Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf.
In spite of the threat of Taliban attacks, the campaigning season will kick off on Sunday with the rival camps throwing lavish parties in Kabul hotels.
Afghan businessmen have welcomed the campaign as a signal the political process is moving forward. Uncertainty about the future helped drive a tumble of more than 10 percent in economic growth in 2013, according to the World Bank.
"Now there is a hope for me and for the people of Afghanistan," said Ismail Temorzada, who owns a carpet shop on Kabul's once busy Chicken Street. His last sale was eight months ago, he said.
But optimism remains clouded by Karzai's refusal to sign a bilateral deal to let a contingent of U.S. troops stay after 2014. If Washington pulls all of its troops, much of the aid that pays for most government and security is likely to dry up.
Widespread ballot-stuffing and wrangling marred the 2009 vote. Afghanistan's backers hope a country split along ethnic lines can accept the outcome as legitimate this time, even if the winner is not from the biggest community.
"The Pashtuns believe they have the right to the presidency because they are the most, and that's not good," said one Western diplomat.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Jessica Donati; Editing by Maria Golovnina and Robert Birsel)