Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Voters to Choose Spoons and Kidney Beans

Symbols assigned to candidates in the upcoming parliamentary election has some prospective politicians fuming.
By Wahidullah Amani

Would you want to run for office as a toothbrush? How about a meat grinder? That’s the question facing Afghanistan’s new crop of political hopefuls as they register for September’s democratic elections.


Election officials estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 candidates will compete for seats on September 18 in either the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga (National Council), or the provincial councils, which will eventually also help choose the upper house, or Meshrano Jirga. All told, about 700 seats will be up for grabs.


The problem is, with much of the population illiterate, how will voters be able to identify the candidate of their choice? Although each contender will have his or her photograph on the ballot, the small size of the picture may make it difficult to identify individual candidates.


So the Joint Electoral Management Body, JEMB, made up of a small army of international advisors along with nine Afghan election commissioners, has come up with a solution: create 400 generic symbols that have no religious, ethnic or political significance, and assign one to each candidate.


Hence, voters this fall could be deciding whether they want a toothbrush, an electric plug, a hairbrush or a broom to represent them.


Since 400 symbols are not nearly enough to be divided among as many as 10,000 candidates, the JEMB has decided that to use double or multiple images as well, so a parliamentary candidate may end up as a single ice cream cone, while his most bitter opponent may be two.


Candidates will draw three symbols out of a hat, and from these they can pick the one they like best. A few lucky ones will get to be a lion, or a dove. Those not so fortunate will run as an axe, or perhaps a bottle of household detergent.


Many candidates say that the whole process is an insult to the country.


“The election commission’s decision is direct and illegal interference in the election,” said political analyst Mohammad Sediq Patman. “They must think Afghans are too stupid to choose their own symbols.”


Patman is intending to run for parliament himself, and wants to choose a symbol that is consistent with his political platform.


“If I am told I have to be a kidney bean, I am going to smash the symbol right in their faces,” he told IWPR.


According to another parliamentary candidate, Sayed Mohammad Ali Jawed, the JEMB’s ban on religious symbols was wrong-headed from the start.


“All people in Afghanistan are Muslim and no one would object to religious symbols being chosen by the candidates,” he said. “I would have chosen the Koran or some place of historical significance.”


Jawid said such symbols would have fit better with his Hezb-e-Harakat-e-Islami, Islamic Movement Party.


Instead, he will be running as a bus.


And why should there be a prohibition on political symbols, asked Sayed Ishaq Gailani, head of the Nuhzat-e-Hambastagi-e-Milli Afghanistan, National Unity Movement of Afghanistan.


“Parliamentary elections are primarily a political process,” he told IWPR. The symbols, he added, have been imposed on the candidates with no consultation.


“There are things that don’t have anything to do with Afghanistan,” he complained. “Why have a palm tree? They don’t exist here.”


Abdul Hakim Murad, one of the nine JEMB commissioners, defends the decision to assign symbols to individual candidates rather than use images associated with existing political or religions groups.


"In the parliamentary election, the candidate is running independently, not as a representative of a party,” he said. “And besides, most people in Afghanistan are illiterate, so the symbols will help them find their candidate.”


During the presidential elections in October 2004, candidates were allowed to choose their own symbols. President Hamed Karzai had the scales of justice as his. Others chose religious images, such as the Koran. One candidate ran as a partridge; General Abdul Rashid Dostum, former commander and present army chief of staff, put himself on the ballot next to a horse.


But, said Murad, with 10,000 contenders out there, it would be impossible to take each person’s wishes into consideration, “We could not put that many different symbols on the ballot.”


The symbols will be standard throughout the country, explained the commissioner. The lotteries are being held separately in each province, so symbols will be repeated randomly throughout the country.


A three-kidney-bean candidate in Jalalabad, for example, may represent someone from an Islamic fundamentalist party, while the same symbol in Herat may stand for a person with more liberal views.


To make things even more complicated, the same symbols will be used for the lower house and the provincial assemblies. Wolesi Jirga candidates will have their signs inside a square, while those of prospective council members will be within a circle.


The entire process has become so convoluted that one international consultant privately termed it “a horse’s arse”. That’s the one image that will not be appearing on the ballot.


Wahidullah Amani in an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.


More IWPR's Global Voices