Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's first elected head of state, is the urbane favourite to win a second term this week after a seven-year rule marred by war, corruption and cooling ties with the West.
Deal-making and shrewd manoeuvring which began long before Thursday's election appear to have secured Karzai the backing of influential strongmen and groups that could see him trump his few real contenders in a field of 41.
Although it is difficult to gauge the level of support, one recent survey suggested 44 per cent of Afghans would vote for the incumbent -- a strong lead but far behind the 50 per cent needed to avoid a run-off.
Karzai's backroom tactics and reluctance to hit the public campaign trail as hard as his rivals have led to controversy, with voters disillusioned by his failure to rein in corruption and a Taliban insurgency now at its deadliest.
In the first televised debate involving an Afghan head of state, Karzai rejected accusations that he forged "coalitions" of convenience with notorious warlords, defending his approach as a bid for national unity.
"If, for the national interest, for progress, for national unity, avoiding war... there is need for more such convenience, once again I will seek that. A thousand times I will do that," he said.
His choice for vice president of Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a former warlord accused of war crimes, dismayed the international community although it may win the Pashtun leader some votes from the influential Tajik minority.
Leaders of the Uzbek and Hazara minorities have also backed the incumbent, while opponents have struggled to put together a coalition strong enough to dislodge him.
"The power politics of this country mean that he has calculated what he needs for power," one European observer said this week.
Karzai was handed the enormous task of leading his crippled nation in December 2001 when the dust had barely settled on a US-led invasion that drove out the extremist Taliban regime for sheltering Al-Qaeda after 9/11.
It was a responsibility he says he has shouldered with care.
"Afghanistan was like a very beautiful golden pot, at the same very, very fragile and I had to take it through storms, rain, mountains and valleys and lots of dangers to safety," he told Sunday's debate.
Urbane, stylish and charming, and without blood on his hands after decades of war, he was appointed chairman of a Transitional Administration at UN-sponsored talks in Germany that pledged to work towards democracy.
Six months later, a traditional Afghan assembly of around 2,000 people, called a loya jirga, confirmed him as president of the transitional government.
In 2004, he went on to win Afghanistan's first presidential election with 55.4 per cent of the vote. His nearest rival managed just over 16 per cent.
Second time round he appears unlikely to secure such a convincing majority.
As president, Karzai has survived at least two assassination attempts, the latest in April last year.
US intelligence has warned Karzai's government was losing legitimacy because of endemic corruption and an inability to deliver basic services.
But analysts say he remains unchallenged because the other major candidates have been unable to offer a real change or political agenda.
Karzai was born in December 1957 in southern Afghanistan to the Popalzai, an influential tribe in Afghanistan's majority Pashtun ethnic group.
The son of a wealthy father, he studied politics in India for six years, obtaining a masters degree in 1983.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, while he was at university, and on graduation he moved to Pakistan to join the resistance, rising through the political ranks.
With the Red Army defeated in 1989, Karzai returned to his homeland and took a position in the government of anti-Soviet factions formed in 1992.
But the factions soon turned on each other, dragging the country into civil war, and Karzai left again for Pakistan.
He briefly threw his weight behind the Taliban movement that emerged in the early 1990s but soon withdrew his support.
Karzai has a young son, born in 2007, with his physician wife, Zenat Karzai.