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Aghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai attends a campaign rally in Kabul on Aug. 7, 2009.LUCY NICHOLSON/Reuters

The spectacle of Afghan politics is like a carousel: The same cast of characters spins in circles, going nowhere. But after next month's presidential election, things could be different.

Hamid Karzai is finally stepping down, constitutionally banned from seeking a third term. Vying to succeed him are nearly a dozen candidates, ranging from warlords to tribal leaders to politicians in the pocket of the Karzai clan. And then there is Ashraf Ghani.

In 2009, he finished close to dead last in the race for Afghan president, with just 3 per cent of the vote. This time, things are different. Mr. Ghani is polling ahead of most of the pack. With less than a month to go before the ballot, his main rival is the former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. For the good of Afghanistan, Mr. Ghani should win.

It's not just that Mr. Ghani has literally written the book on how his country can be saved from ruin. An academic who left the country just before the Soviet invasion, he has spent much of his life researching state-building at Columbia, Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, followed by a stint at the World Bank. When he returned to Afghanistan in 2002 he devoted himself to putting those ideas into practice, serving as the country's finance minister and advising the United Nations on the best ways to empower Afghans – including women and the poor – to shape their own future.

Mr. Ghani is an educated idealist, but he is not an innocent. His running mate is General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a prominent warlord. He recognizes the pull of tribal loyalties, but also aims to harness and limit them. He believes in investing in energy production, linking food producers to international markets, and rooting out corruption. Coming from anyone else, these promises sound like pie in the sky. But Mr. Ghani has the intellect and the experience to give them a fighting chance.

Four years ago, Afghan voters chose Mr. Karzai. The country is still paying the price. American intelligence assessments predict a future where the Taliban wields even more influence than it does today. Mr. Karzai is not the only one to blame, but he leaves behind a disappointing legacy. Mr. Ghani's appeal to voters, including the country's huge diaspora, is gaining traction. His vision is hopeful and pragmatic. He's Afghanistan's best shot at a second chance.

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