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.
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:


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.


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.

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