Kabul: A week before candidates can register for Afghanistan`s presidential election, there is still no favourite to succeed Hamid Karzai, but deal making is going on in earnest behind the scenes.
Constitutionally barred from running for a third term, Karzai has been Afghanistan`s only leader since the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban regime.
Twelve years later NATO troops are preparing to leave, a Taliban insurgency is as strong as ever, the country is polarised along ethnic lines and the government dependent on Western cash to survive.
The challenges facing Afghanistan`s next president are immense and under Karzai`s dominance, no obvious candidate capable of appealing to, let alone uniting disparate groups has emerged.
"For the first time in Afghanistan there is no favourite," said researcher Karim Pakzad from French think tank IRIS.
The last presidential election in 2009 was overshadowed by massive fraud but ultimately Afghans decided they were better off with the mercurial Pashtun leader who has proved adept at keeping any potential rivals at bay.
Despite huge concern about security and the possibility of an eventual return to civil war when NATO troops leave, Pakzad says: "There is no one capable of representing an alternative vision of peace, stability and progress."
But with Karzai out of the running for the April 5, 2014 vote, his potential successors have from September 16 to October 6 to register their candidacy.
In the absence of a favourite, the Afghan capital is awash with rumours.
"There is alliance building going on till the last minute," said Thomas Ruttig from the Afghanistan Analysts Network based in Kabul.
Several prominent members of the anti-Karzai opposition, based in the Uzbek and Tajik areas of the north have formed a new coalition, including Abdullah Abdullah who was Karzai`s only rival in the 2009 election.
Other members are the former warlord turned governor of strategic province Balkh, Atta Mohammad Noor and the former communist fighter Abdul Rashid Dostum.
It is based loosely on the old Northern Alliance coalition that backed the US-led invasion that brought down the old enemies, the Taliban regime.
But while it has vowed to put forward a single candidate for the election, some analysts fear that it could collapse under the weight of its internal
"It would represent a tremendous step forward of their political maturity if they indeed came up with a single candidate," said Ruttig, who thinks a three-way race is most likely.