After two false starts because of security concerns, official campaigning for the Afghan presidential elections began today. Candidates have started making speeches, distributing posters and advertising on radio ahead of the polls, which will take place on October 9.

Who are the candidates? Voters will choose between 18 candidates for a five-year term of office. If none of those candidates wins a simple majority, a run-off election in November will determine a final winner. Some of the strongest candidates are: ·

· Hamid Karzai. The current president, appointed in 2002 by the loya jirga (grand assembly), stands the best chance of being elected. He speaks several Afghan languages and comes from the country's largest ethnic group, the Pashtun. However, the country's security situation is dire, opium production has exploded, and most Afghans live in abject poverty and have little access to healthcare. Voters may not have expected Mr Karzai to solve the problems caused by almost three decades of war in only three years, however. Afghanistan also needs foreign funds, and his urbane dignity goes down well with international donors.

· Yunus Qanuni. Mr Karzai's education minister is best placed to defeat him at the polls. Mr Qanuni served as a the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, and is a member of the country's second largest ethnic group, the Tajiks. He has two powerful backers in Mr Karzai's defence minister, Mohammed Fahim, and the former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah.

· Massouda Jalal. The only female candidate on the list, Ms Jalal is a former UN worker and a qualified paediatrician. She is independent of any faction, but that means she lacks a power base. She came a distant second to Mr Karzai at the loya jirga in 2002.

· Mohammed Mohaqeq. Formerly an anti-Taliban militia commander, Mr Mohaqeq is from the long-suffering Shia Muslim Hazara minority of central Afghanistan. He served as planning minister in Mr Karzai's government until March, when he insists he was ejected from the cabinet because of his candidacy. He could overshadow Mr Karzai's less popular Hazara vice-presidential nominee.

· Abdul Rashid Dostum. A ruthless Uzbek warlord, he has a reputation as a serial betrayer, having allied himself with almost every Afghan leader over the past two decades. He fought both with and against the Soviets during the 80s, and with the Taliban until joining the Northern Alliance, which helped the US oust its regime in late 2001.

· Abdul Satar Serat. An Uzbek and a former aide to Afghanistan's last king, Mr Serat has spent most of the past 30 years in exile. Many believed that the intellectual nationalist would head up the post-Taliban interim government, but Mr Karzai, backed by the US, took the post.

· Abdul Hafiz Mansoor. The traditionalist former head of Aghan state television, Mr Mansoor put on a rabble-rousing display at the loya jirga, which passed Afghanistan's new constitution in January. He has links with the Tajik faction in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, and has accused Mr Karzai of attempting to install an elected dictatorship. He stirred up anger by ordering a ban on women singing on air.