About the only thing anyone knows about the outcome of Afghanistan’s presidential election is that Hamid Karzai won’t be reelected. Having served two terms – and survived six assassination attempts – he is not allowed to stand again.
For a while it looked as if another Karzai might be in with a chance. Hamid’s brother Qayum was one of the 11 out of 27 potential candidates allowed to stand by the elections commission but withdrew at the beginning of March, declaring his support for former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul.
This is widely presumed to mean that the palace supports Rassoul and there is no doubt that Hamid Karzai, his family and those connected to him through the complex Pashtun tribal structure - not to mention business links – are straining every nerve to maintain their influence in post-election Afghanistan.
But Rassoul looks poorly placed to beat two other candidates - Abdullah Abdullah, the former lieutenant to Tajik anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Masood who came second in the 2009 election, and Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist and finance minister who scored poorly in 2009 but has now formed a potentially profitable, if morally questionable, alliance with Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Other candidates could also score surprise successes, as anti-corruption campaigner Ramzan Bashardost did in 2009. The result is particularly unpredictable because Taliban threats are likely to affect voter-turnout, particularly in the south and east - the heartlands of the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns.
Will the US pull out?
Afghanistan after the election will soon become Afghanistan after the foreign troop withdrawal, scheduled to be over by the end of 2014, and although in principle some US troops will remain, Karzai is making a cliffhanger out of that question, too.
To Washington’s disgust he has refused to sign the agreement on terms for US troops in Afghanistan after 2014, despite the fact that he initially welcomed it and that a special national assembly, the Loya Jirga, endorsed it.
The president argues that it is up to his successor, who will have to preside over its consequences, to do so.
Like the Iraqi government before him, Karzai has expressed discontent about US troops enjoying immunity from prosecution.
To everyone’s surprise, the Iraqis refused to sign an agreement, resulting in all US combat troops pulling out of a strategically vital country that they had taken the trouble to invade.
Could that happen in Afghanistan?
It’s unlikely since all the candidates have told Washington that they support the agreement in part, at least, motivated by the three billion euros of annual military aid that would be lost if it it doesn't go into operation.
But Obama’s administration is furious with Karzai, who has proved an increasingly erratic ally. If the plan is endorsed, 10,000 US troops will stay but in February Obama ordered the Pentagon to draw up contingency plans for total withdrawal in case the agreement is not signed - or to put pressure on Karzai, depending on which way you want to interpret the battle of wills.
How free and fair will the election be?
Corruption, intimidation and insurgency will undoubtedly affect this election.
As in both previous presidential elections, international observers are likely to settle for a good enough election, rather than a completely fraud-free one.
Candidates are not expected to stay within the official campaign budget limit of 10 million Afghanis (128,000 euros) and informal campaigning methods, especially hacking deals with local notables, play a more important part in Afghan elections than rallies or party political broadcasts.
The Taliban have pledged to disrupt the election and are certain to carry out their promise, especially in the majority-Pashtun south and east. Amid widespread disillusion over the results of post-2001 democracy, many voters may decide not to risk their lives for the sake of a process in which they have little faith.
If they do go, they may be looking over their shoulders as they cast their ballot. Dostum - once dubbed a 'known killer" by Ghani, who is now his running mate - is not the only warlord on a presidential list.
"Of the leading five presidential tickets, the only two without members accused of being warlords are those of Zalmai Rassoul, the low-profile former foreign minister, and Qayum Karzai, the president’s brother and the owner of restaurants in Baltimore," commented the New York Times's Rod Norland in February. Since then Qayum Karzai has withdrawn.
"Armed strongmen – warlords and commanders – have, contrary to the 2001 Bonn agreement, been disarmed only superficially or not at all," writes Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network. "They sit in most key positions and dominate the parliament, the judiciary and the still-partly factionalised security forces as well as the country’s few functioning business sectors."
A further cause for concern is the potential number of phantom voters.
The scrapping of old voter-cards and new voter registration in 2012-13 has led to as many as 20.7 million voters being registered, out of a population of 27 million, half of whom are under voting age, according to Ruttig.
Will the result be accepted?
Once the voting is over, there will be shouting.
It will be up to the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) to referee, as candidates swap accusations of fraud and corruption and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to make the final ruling on the validity of the vote.
Not everybody has confidence in their efficiency or their neutrality.
The leading elections watchdog, Fefa, last year claimed that the IEC had failed to invite civil society groups to observe its vetting of candidates and disbarred candidates claimed they had not been informed of the reason they were not allowed to stand.
Both committees' members were selected by Karzai.
"The president obviously chose his own people, those loyal to his circle," commented Kandahar MP Naim Lalai Hamidzai after the IECC's make-up was announced.
"We don't expect they will properly scrutinise allegations of electoral fraud," said Hussain Sancharaki, who was Abdullah's spokesperson in 2009.
Who are the candidates?
Mohammad Daud Sultanzoy
First vice-president, Ahmad Saeedi
Second vice-president, Kazima Mohaqiq
Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf
First vice-president, Mohammad Ismail Khan
Second vice-president, Abdul Wahab Urfan
First vice-president, Enayatullah Enayat
Second vice-president, Mohammad Ali Nabizada
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai
First vice-president, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum
Second vice-president, Sarwar Danish
First vice-president, Ahmad Zia Massoud
Second vice-president, Habiba Surabi
Sardar Muhammad Nadir Naeem
First vice-president, Taj Mohammad Akbar
Second vice-president, Azizullah Puya
Gul Agha Sherzai
First vice-president, Sayed Hussain Alimi Balkhi
Second vice-president, Mohammad Hashim Zarea
Hedayat Amin Arsala
First vice-president, Gen. Khudaidad
Second vice-president, Safia Seddiqi
Abdul Rahim Wardak
First vice-president, Shah Abdul Ahad Afzali
Second vice-president, Sayed Hussian Anwari
First vice-president, Wahidullah Shahrani
Second vice-president, Ibrahim Qasmi