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Afghanistan: Ballot Papers Feature Unique System Of Candidate Symbols

Supporters of a female candidate look over her leaflets Afghan voters go to polling stations on Sunday (18 September) to choose their first parliament in more than three decades. When they do, they will be choosing candidates identified on ballot papers not only by their names but also by a complicated system of symbols. The symbols are necessary because a large majority of Afghanistan’s voters are illiterate.

Kabul, 14 September 2005 (RFE/RL) – A cow, a duck, an ice cream cone, a bicycle, or a cell phone. These are some of the choices Afghan voters will see on their ballot papers alongside photographs of each candidate when they go to polling stations on 18 September.

UN and Afghan election organizers in the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) consider the symbols necessary to help illiterate voters identify the candidates of their choice.

“With 5,800 candidates standing, obviously one of the most challenging parts of the ballot-paper production was how do we present the candidates in a format that voters can locate and find and indicate the candidate they wish to vote for as quickly as possible," JEMB spokesman Aleem Siddique explained. "In Afghanistan, illiteracy has been a particular hurdle for us. With women, illiteracy rates can run as high as 85 percent in Afghanistan and with men it’s up to 55 percent. So one of the key features of the ballot paper to help voters is that we’ve introduced a symbol to find, locate the candidate on polling day with greater ease.”

As in the Afghan presidential election in October 2004, a photograph of each candidate will appear on the ballot next to his name and symbol. But in the presidential race, there were only 18 candidates. With so many candidates in the parliamentary elections, the JEMB says there is a significant chance that photographs may be very similar – causing confusion for voters (for a sample, see the JEMB's website here:

Siddique said the experience of using a numbering system during Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga process in 2003 also shows that many illiterate Afghan voters struggle to cope with more than a single-digit number. So the JEMB has created ballot papers for the parliamentary vote that combine photographs of each candidate with their name, a candidate number, and the unusual system of symbols.

“Another feature of the ballot paper that we’ve introduced is that a photograph of each of the candidates is listed alongside their name and number," Siddique said. "Both the symbol and the photograph, we think, will help [voters] to find the candidate of their choice quickly on polling day.”
"In Afghanistan, illiteracy has been a particular hurdle for us. With women, illiteracy rates can run as high as 85 percent in Afghanistan and with men it’s up to 55 percent." - JEMB spokesman

Candidates have been busy trying to acquaint voters with the symbols they will use on the ballots by distributing leaflets and posters bearing the black-and-white marks alongside their photographs.

Some of the symbols are items that had been banned by the Taliban regime -- an audio cassette, a television, or equipment for sports like soccer and cricket.

In Kabul, Mohammad Siddiq Chakari’s posters feature a mobile telephone. Ayatollah Allahyar’s symbol is a camel while Abdul Ghafar Dawi’s is a horse. Anahita Adar, one of many women running for parliament in Kabul, has two pairs of scissors for her symbol.

Sayid Ilmi owns a small shop in central Kabul where he sells fabrics and hand-carved stone artifacts. Ilmi said the candidate symbols are a good idea.

“The symbols are very important for the people of Afghanistan because 80 percent of them cannot read or write," Ilmi told RFE/RL. "So these symbols are like pictures. They can see the symbols of their candidate of choice and know how to vote for them. [For example], I know that the symbol of the television is the symbol for [Yunos] Qanuni. Every day and night, the national Afghan television is giving information to help the people know which symbol is their candidate.”

In fact, candidate symbols also were used during the Afghan presidential election last year. In that election, each candidate was allowed to design their own symbol. But the JEMB decided to design the symbols for the parliamentary vote rather than allowing each candidates to do so.

Siddique explained that many would likely have chosen similar symbols – especially symbols of cultural and historical significance like the Afghan flag or the Koran. Use of religious or historical symbols was ruled out so that some candidates wouldn’t gain an unfair advantage.

Using the symbols of political parties also was ruled out because the parties are likely to support more than one candidate in many of the 69 different races -- so the symbols would not uniquely identify the candidates on the ballot. Party symbols also would cause problems for the many candidates who are running as independents.

Siddique said the JEMB also wanted to prevent the use of symbols that are culturally unacceptable to Afghans -- or that might incite and promote beliefs or behavior contrary to democratic values. “The symbols were allocated to the candidates at the candidate-nomination period," he said. "When the candidate stepped forward for nomination, they had a choice of three symbols which were literally pulled out of a hat by the candidate. And then the candidate could choose which symbol meant the most to them. And the other two symbols were put back into the hat. A lot of thought and consideration went into choosing these symbols. We held extensive focus-group research with communities across Afghanistan to ensure that they were culturally sensitive and appropriate to the people of Afghanistan.”

Mohammad Isaq, who is running for a seat in the Wolesi Jirga as an independent candidate from Kapisa Province, told RFE/RL that he is happy with the symbol he randomly drew. “The symbols that we have on our ballot papers were presented to us by the JEMB. They gave us three chances [to randomly draw symbols]. Fortunately, the choice I drew included a deer. So I am happy," he said. "But many candidates are unhappy about the symbols they drew.”

With so many candidates, the JEMB also had to double and triple the use of some symbols. So a candidate with the symbol of an apple will compete against others with two or three apples.

The symbol system has led to jokes amongst Afghans about voters who might mistakenly think they will get a car or an airplane if they vote for a candidate with that symbol.