Hamid Karzai, Afghan president, faces 40 challengers in his bid to win a second term in office. But challengers face an uphill struggle to unseat a man who enjoys the benefits of incumbency, patronage, name recognition and powerful friends abroad.

The 51-year-old president, who was first elected in 2004 but served as interim leader in the preceding years, has kept his campaigning to a minimum, but has drawn enthusiastic crowds to the events he has attended.

His popularity stems partly from his strong ethnic support base. He is a member of a distinguished Pashtun family who were close to the former royal family. Ethnic Pashtuns make up 40 per cent of the population, the largest voting bloc.

He also enjoys pockets of support outside his ethnic group in rural areas that have felt the benefits of foreign aid and recent improvements in governance.

Mr Karzai has proved adept over the years at cementing ties with rival political factions, through a combination of charm and patronage - reportedly promising cabinet posts, governorships and even newly created provinces in exchange for support.

Several of his powerful allies are expected to deliver hundreds of thousands of votes each, especially among minorities such as ethnic Hazaras and Uzbeks. This may help to offset concerns that many polling centres in the war-torn south and east – Pashtun strongholds – may not be able to open because of the threat of violence.

Some of his alliances have fuelled allegations that he has done little to tackle cronyism and corruption in Afghanistan. His choice of Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a former defence minister and militia leader, as his vice-presidential running mate, added to these concerns.

Mr Fahim, an old-style strongman, deserved a place in government, said Mr Karzai, because veterans of the anti-Soviet struggle of the 1980s had been unfairly excluded from power.

Mr Karzai’s ties with the former US-backed Mujahideen dates from his years in exile, when, after completing his studies in India and France, he moved to Pakistan where he helped provide financial and logistical support to anti-Soviet fighters.

Mr Karzai has been dogged by the epithet ‘Mayor of Kabul’ because of his government’s failure to extend its remit much beyond the capital. If he wins a second term, He has promised to pursue a policy of negotiations with the Taliban to try to end the war and focus on building roads, improving education, boosting the economy and shoring up agriculture. Although dubbed a US puppet by his enemies because of his close ties with Washington, he was close enough to the Taliban in the 1990s to be invited to serve as their ambassador to the United Nations - an offer he turned down.

His electoral alliances with militia leaders from the past have disappointed a fast-growing younger generation of educated and more independent thinking voters hoping for change. But he is credited by business leaders with doing much to develop the economy. Local business leaders say his administration has ”facilitated” their success by keeping taxes low and offering other incentives.

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