KABUL, May 22 (Reuters) - The two candidates left in the race to become president of Afghanistan began campaigning on Thursday, with the run-off between former opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah and ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani set for June 14.
The election went to a second round as none of the eight candidates who contested the initial vote on April 5 secured more than 50 percent of the vote.
Abdullah and Ghani both held rallies on Thursday in the capital Kabul, while the Ministry of Interior held a conference to reassure the public over security, as the country enters the summer months when the Taliban insurgency is usually most active.
The winner will take charge at a crucial time with most foreign troops due to withdraw by the end of the year, and an agreement with Washington permitting some U.S. forces to stay still hanging in the balance.
Abdullah, a former leader in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, led first round results by a near 14 point margin winning 45 percent of the vote, according to final results released last week.
Former finance minister Ghani scored 31.6 percent, but stands to gain a portion of the ethnic Pashtun vote that splintered between candidates in the first round. Abdullah is more closely identified with the Tajik community.
Below is a timeline of key events and brief biographies of the two contenders:
May 22 : Run-off campaign period begins
June 11: Campaign period ends
June 14: Election day
July 2 : Preliminary results announced
July 16: Complaints body submits final report
July 22: Final results announced
A former ophthalmologist-turned-fighter of Soviet forces in the 1980s, Abdullah dropped out of a run-off against Hamid Karzai in the 2009 election, citing concerns about mass electoral fraud.
An adviser to the assassinated Northern Alliance guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Masood, Abdullah was appointed foreign minister in Karzai's first government after the Taliban were ousted in 2001, before abruptly leaving his post in 2005.
Abdullah's support base lies in the Tajik community, Afghanistan's second largest ethnic group, although he is half-Pashtun.
As a young man, Abdullah studied medicine at Kabul University and worked as an ophthalmologist until 1985.
A year later he joined the Panjshir Resistance Front against the Soviets and served as an adviser to Masood, a national hero for many Afghans.
Abdullah was foreign minister of the United Front - better known internationally as the Northern Alliance - from 1998 and, after Masood's assassination in 2001, became a leading figure in the alliance that helped U.S. forces topple the Taliban.
The American-trained anthropologist returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban were ousted and held various government posts, including finance minister. He won about four percent of the vote in the last presidential election in 2009.
One of Afghanistan's best-known intellectuals, Ghani spent almost a quarter of century abroad during the tumultuous decades of Soviet rule, civil war and the Taliban regime.
During that period he worked as an academic in the United States and Denmark, and with the World Bank and the United Nations across East and South Asia.
Within months of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Ghani resigned from his international posts and returned to Afghanistan to become a senior adviser to Karzai.
Ghani is among the strongest backers of a crucial bilateral security deal to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, which Karzai has refused to endorse. Ghani has said he would sign it swiftly if elected.
A Pashtun belonging to Afghanistan's biggest ethnic group, Ghani has defended his decision to pick Abdul Rashid Dostum, a controversial former warlord from the minority ethnic Uzbek community, as a running mate.
"The ticket is a realistic balance between forces that have been produced in the last 30 years and have a base in this society," Ghani told Reuters. (Reporting by Kabul newsroom; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)