Afghanistan’s ongoing presidential election, if successful, will mark the first transfer of power via an election in that country’s history. Election does not necessarily imply democracy. Afghanistan’s previous two presidential elections, both won by incumbent Hamid Karzai, saw ubiquitous election fraud and there are legitimate questions about how representative one leader or political party can be in a country so fraught with sectarian and tribal divisions. Nowhere are these divisions more apparent than in the central challenge of selling the whole process of democracy to the Afghan people. Afghanistan’s divisions are manifested partly in the readiness of many Afghans to pursue other avenues when the State looks less than functional, which is its usual condition. Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah who withdrew from the 2009 election to protest Karzai’s election fraud has threatened to create a “parallel state,” by force if necessary, if the currently disputed outcome cannot be resolved. This willingness on Abdullah’s part is suggestive of many things, most important of which may be a lack of confidence that the central government can effectively represent more than one of Afghanistan’s many groups at a time. Abdullah nominally represents Tajik interests—the northern part of the country—despite his own mixed ancestry. Ashraf Ghani, the other candidate, has more widespread support among Pashtuns. The challenge all parties face is in trying to make this election more than a contest to see which ethnic group has more voters.
There are a lot of ways to slice Afghanistan: along tribal lines, religious lines, political allegiances, ethnicity, or even language. Western powers, however, have chosen none of these divisions. Afghanistan is to be ruled as a single state, headquartered in Kabul, and is to be a democracy. The 2004 constitution under which Karzai has vaguely been operating grants considerable powers of centralisation: for instance, the president appoints not only regional governors, but also the police chiefs.
In a country like Afghanistan, where adjacent regions may be radically different, this is understandably concerning to anyone not belonging to the current president’s particular ethnic group. In part, this will be mitigated by various power-sharing measures, such as reinstating the position of a Prime Minister, as well as proposed elections for regional governors. While this is a step in the right direction, it is not without its own dangers. Democracy can take many different forms, and centralised government is not the only way to rule Afghanistan. Working with instead of against Afghanistan’s existing tribal structures remains an open challenge for both the West and any future government in Kabul.