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Afghanistan: In Rugged Country, Posters Convey Campaign Message

By Laura Winter [For more on the Afghan elections, see RFE/RL and Radio Free Afghanistan's dedicated "Afghanistan Votes 2004-05" --> webpage.]

Afghan presidential candidates campaigning for the country's top office face myriad obstacles, such as poor security and the lack of money, infrastructure, or traditional media such as television and radio. But candidates have sought to tackle these problems by using colored ink, paper, and armies of volunteers.

Kabul, 7 October 2004 -- There's an old Persian proverb that goes: "Moses has heard God's message. Mohammad has seen it. How can you compare?"

Fayzullah Zaki believes in that proverb. Especially in Afghanistan -- a poor country where most people don't have television or radio, can't read the newspapers, and live in areas too remote for presidential candidates to reach.

So how have the 18 candidates initially vying to win Afghanistan's first-ever presidential election on 9 October got their message out?

Well, with posters, says Zaki, a spokesman for Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the candidates.

"Yes, [the poster is] the main [tool], because it goes far. It goes far. Its coverage is not comparable with radio, even with TV," Zaki says. "You see -- nothing. Yes, it is comparable even to a tete-a-tete meeting, because you send a person to the top of a mountain or to the depth of a valley to talk to people. But then these are words. But here if he has a poster with him, then you have the picture, the visual message, which is the most efficient."

More than 10 million Afghan voters were expected to choose from a field of 17 men and one woman initially registered to run. Yet only a handful of the candidates have been able to campaign outside of Kabul due to lack funds or the fact that the roads are just too unsafe.

To get their message out, candidates have met with tribal elders who they hope returned to their villages not only to campaign for them -- but also to paste their posters in shop windows and on village walls.

These posters contain carefully crafted messages that not only convey the candidates' slogans, but also their faces and individual symbols. The aid group Awaz -- Dari for "The Voice" -- assisted each candidate in designing and printing posters at the cost of $5,000 per contender.
To get their message out, candidates have met with tribal elders who they hope returned to their villages not only to campaign for them -- but also to paste their posters in shop windows and on village walls.

Dominic Morisette, an Awaz staffer, says a candidate's photo and logo are the most import images for average Afghans. For voters who know how to read, they can simply make a check mark next to their candidate's written name. But for those who can't read, they can mark their ballot next to their favorite candidate's photo or logo.

Morisette says each of the symbols in the posters reflect the candidate's character.

"If they don't recognize Dostum's picture, they will recognize his black horse because this is his logo. And of course a black horse to Dostum. Uzbek guy. I think it is quite related to him," Morisette says. "[For] others, it is book because they are very religious, something like this. Karzai is an eagle and a scale. So that will make them, the people recognize the symbol. And I think the symbol, most of them are quite well related to the candidate."

Finding Mas'uda Jalal's photo on the ballot is easy: She is the only woman in the running. Voters choosing from the 17 male faces might alternatively have an easier time identifying their candidate by symbol. They include stylized maps of Afghanistan, different animals, Korans, a candle, a pen, and variations on wheat.

The importance of these posters is not lost on the thousands of campaign volunteers.

Abdul Nasir is a 25-year-old university student. He takes time out every day to paste up posters of his favorite candidate, Abdul Hasib Aryan. He says people may know Aryan's name, but they need to know his face and symbol, too.

The days of legal poster pasting ended yesterday, when official campaigning came to an end. The same day, Aryan and another presidential hopeful, Sayyed Eshaq Gailani, dropped out of the race.

But the images of candidates are certain to remain plastered on walls across this mountainous country right through the election on 9 October.

[Click here to see a "Factbox" on the presidential election.]