Why Afghans May Vote for a Pencil or Bulldozer

In a country where fewer than half of voters are literate, ballots for an upcoming election take on a more pictorial form.
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An election worker waits for voters at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Kandahar province on September 18, 2010. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

A bulldozer. A radio. A pencil. A Koran. These are just a few of the candidates vying to win Afghanistan's upcoming presidential election. 

For each of the 10 candidates expected to be on the ballot for the April 5 vote, there is a symbol. And those symbols will be printed on ballot papers alongside the name and photograph of each candidate to help voters choose their preferred candidate.

The idea is to make voting easier for the many eligible voters in the country who cannot read. Only 39 percent of Afghanistan's adult population is literate.

The Democracy ReportIn keeping with elections dating back to 2004, the country's Independent Election Commission (IEC) initially assigned a symbol to each potential candidate assuming that there would be a high number of contenders to choose from.

(This approach caused problems during general elections in neighboring Pakistan this spring, where some candidates took umbrage at the symbols they were assigned.)

However, after the IEC eliminated 17 hopefuls from the running, only 10 remained from the list of vetted candidates announced on October 22. This freed up the IEC to allow candidates to choose their own symbols, pending approval.

The use of symbols will not be limited to presidential candidates. Those running in provincial elections, which will also be held on April 5, had to choose from one of three symbols offered to them. Overall, there were more than 5,000 possible symbols, including everything from a ladder, television set, and  ice-cream cone to a bicycle.

Here is a list of leading candidates and their respective symbols:

Bulldozer

Presidential hopeful Gul Agha Sherzai, a former governor of both Kandahar and Nangarhar provinces, opted for a bulldozer to match his nickname, earned for his hard-hitting style and reputation for getting things done.

During his time as governor of Nangarhar, the former warlord completed a series of daunting infrastructure projects in recorded time, including building a network of paved roads, installing solar-powered street lights in urban centers, and reconstructing the presidential palace in the provincial capital, Jalalabad.

Scales of Justice

Qutbuddin Helal, a prominent member of the Hezb-e Islami faction, led by notorious jihadist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, chose the scales of justice as his symbol.

His choice has raised eyebrows. Hekmatyar has been blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist and his Hezb-e-Islami faction, currently fighting against international and Afghan security forces, has been accused of committing some of the worst human-rights abuses that occurred during Afghanistan's 1990s civil war.

Koran

Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank official, chose the Koran as his symbol.

It is unclear why, exactly, he chose the Koran. But the Western-educated technocrat could be looking to show voters his religious side. Afghanistan is one of the world's most deeply religious and conservative countries and some Afghans could be wary of a candidate with ties to the West.

Ultimately, however, Ghani could have to make another choice. In the past, symbols of cultural, religious, or historical importance have been ruled out on the basis that they could give candidates an unfair advantage.

Afghan Flag

Abdul Rasul Sayyaf is an Egyptian-trained cleric who is credited with bringing leading Al-Qaeda figures -- including former leader Osama bin Laden -- to Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

He picked the Afghan flag as his symbol, perhaps in an attempt to showcase his patriotism and overcome the perception among voters that he has strong connections with foreigners.

But his choice, too, could be overruled, seeing as the flag is an official symbol of the Afghan state.

Pencil

Qayum Karzai, the older brother of outgoing President Hamid Karzai, has smartly adopted the pencil as his logo.

Qayum is a prominent technocrat who was educated in the United States. He has stressed the important role education can play in developing the country and putting it on the road to prosperity. 

Book and Pen

Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, has also adopted a symbol of education.

Abdullah is a qualified eye surgeon and the 2009 election runner-up has often spoken about the importance of education.

Wheat

Hedayat Amin Arsala, a former finance minister, has gone with wheat, a symbol of abundance and prosperity. Arsala, who was educated in the United States, is an economist by trade. His choice may be designed to show off his economic credentials.

Peace

Abdul Rahim Wardak, a former minister of defense, who most recently served as a security adviser to the president, chose an Islamic peace symbol.

A white dove, with wings spread, is flanked by two swords. The emblem reads "Allahu Akbar," or "God Is Great."

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Wardak was the leader of one of the Islamist Mujahedin groups fighting the Afghan communist regime and its Soviet backers.

Radio

In what appears to be an odd choice for a candidate known to be soft-spoken, former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasul chose a radio as his symbol. Rasul kept away from the public eye for much of his time as a presidential adviser and minister. Might the radio reflect his desire to reach out to the Afghan public?

Peace Doves

Prince Mohammad Nader Naim appears to have chosen three doves -- a symbol of peace. Naim is the grandson of former King Zaher Shah. Naim was a close aide to the former monarch, who died in Kabul in 2007.


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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