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Afghanistan blog: upcoming elections

Afghanistan blog

Kabul, September 13, 2005

Everyone in Kabul is talking about one parliamentary candidate – “the woman in yellow.” Nobody knows what her views are on access to education or on land reform. But she is undoubtedly one of the best known parliamentary candidates in Kabul. Amongst the door, and downright glowering, campaign photos plastered on every conceivable surface, her picture stands out for her obvious youth, her sweet smile, and her bright yellow veil which artistically frames, but does not quite cover, her hair. Frankly, her campaign picture looks more like the cover of a glossy magazine, or an advertisement for a demure Bollywood movie, than a political poster. It is now being sold on the streets for up to $5.

The entire country, right now, is awash in posters. There are nearly 5,800 candidates running for parliamentary and provincial council and they have all put posters up. And billboards. And the campaign business cards that candidates hand out like candy. Some potential voters collect the cards the way young boys collect baseball cards.

In a country where the vast majority of voters are illiterate and political parties are not allowed to campaign, the candidates’ photos are the primary means of communicating with voters. These campaign devices have to convey enough information to allow voters to remember and vote for candidates on election day. That’s no easy task for voters, considering that in some places, the ballots (one each for the parliamentary and provincial races) can run up to seven pages. It would be hard even if voters could read the name of their favorite candidate—most can’t.

Instead, the elections here rely on a combination of helpful devices. Each candidate has a number, which may or may not be easier to remember than a name. Also, every candidate has been assigned a symbol. The symbols were selected to be devoid of any political association. The woman in yellow’s symbol is two bunnies—seriously. There are also three lions, a running stallion, two onions, a watermelon, thunderbolts, computer terminals, inkwells, and one luckless candidate got an eight-ball—which is likely to be totally incomprehensible to some Afghans. It couldn’t have been an easy task, finding thousands of innocuous, distinctive, memorable symbols.

While the symbols are meaningless, the candidates’ photos communicate volumes. Smiling is definitely out. It’s too western, too friendly, too jocular (hence the impact of the woman in yellow’s photo). For the men, it’s western versus traditional clothing, it’s not smiling versus scowling, and of course it’s quantity and coverage of facial hair. There are full-on bushy Stalin mustaches, trim little goatees, and flowing beards—indicating old fashioned lefties, western style technocrats, and conservative religious views respectively. Woman candidates convey some of the same information through the color, shape, and coverage of their veils or headscarves, which range from tight and dark to, well, yellow and flowing.

The woman in yellow has become the talk of the town among the foreign journalists, diplomats, and aid workers working in Kabul. But we, like many Afghans we speak with, have no idea of what she and most other political candidates stand for. We have to make do with rumors and suggestions. We heard a rumor last night that she had been threatened and forced to leave for France. As soon as we got over our shock we tried to get to the bottom of it (a false rumor apparently). Another rumor is that her candidacy is actually put forward by one of the major political armed factions. We are trying to get to the bottom of this rumor also. In this environment it is impossible for us to keep track of every individual candidate’s political affiliation or past record, so we like the afghan voting public have to rely on such crude iconography at times.

That a young woman is allowed to run for parliament in Afghanistan is remarkable progress, but that only goes so far. We still don’t know how the woman in yellow will fare as a member of parliament if she is elected, and how she will act on issues of basic human rights, education, land reform, health, and economic development. Given the electoral system set up for this election, the voters have virtually no opportunity to make up their mind about such important issues. Unfortunately the woman in yellow’s charm alone is not likely to satisfy the voters when this parliament begins its work. The Afghans who wade through lists of hundreds of candidates, looking for the assigned symbol of their preferred choice (“Is that melon or an apple? A video monitor or a Quonset hut?) will have done their job and they will expect results soon.

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