Scott Bohlinger is a political analyst and writer who has lived in Afghanistan since 2006. He works for a non-governmental organization in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan and has traveled extensively in the Middle East.
In the run-up to this Thursday’s elections in Afghanistan, I’ve noticed a menagerie of political artwork and iconography. Every surface is increasingly plastered with political advertisements of all possible sorts, with even the most sacred surfaces growing more profane by the day.
Posters began to crowd empty walls and open spaces about a month ago. Slowly, they colonized billboards for other products. Even the portrait of Afghanistan’s glorified national martyr, Ahmad Shah Massoud, has been concealed by the cascade of paper and glue.
Two styles have seemed to emerge — stuff produced by Afghans and stuff produced for Afghans.
Because the Afghan society is largely illiterate, the images seem to carry the messages. The posters coming from Afghan campaigns remain simple and effective in their message. But public information campaigns seek to bolster participation in the elections and thereby the state’s legitimacy; they seem fraught with too much information and angst.
Locally, President Karzai’s chief challenger, Abdullah, has the backing of the powerful governor of the northern province of Balkh, Muhammad Atta. This simple message that a vote for Abdullah is a vote for Atta is forcefully on view everywhere where numerous pictures can be seen of the two men together. The standard picture of them shows Abdullah looking ahead (and at you) sternly and resolutely with Atta looking on towards him. The power relationship is clearly demarcated by Atta’s not weak but admiring expression — for should Abdullah win, Atta would indeed be subservient to him. The message is clear for even the most illiterate person or casual passerby, but for the literate there is also a written slogan that loosely translates to “Going the path of clarity is success.”
The other poster is a public service advertisement explaining the election process to people. It shows a smiling man of average demeanor and income (though smartly and traditionally dressed) casting ballots for the election. That much is clear. In its attempt to explain the voting process encyclopediacally, however, it gets bogged down in details, at once too confusing for the casual observer and too complicated for someone who takes the time to read its full contents.
In order to show when the polling stations are open, the man casts a different ballot into a different box with each hand, and above each shoulder is a clock with an arrow connecting them intending to show opening and closing times. The two ballots are meant to be for the two separate simultaneous elections — for the provincial councils and presidency. But the local joke is that the man must be poor because he is only casting two ballots.
On either side of the man is a text in Persian and Pashto — which neither I nor anyone else I know has taken the time to read because they’re never in a position to stand still and examine it with a critical eye. The poster is cluttered with a number of other symbols meant to explain the different ballots taking place, color-coordinating them and providing the number of an assistance hotline. There’s a nifty slogan at the bottom too, “your vote, your future.” Altogether, the attempt to explain everything to everyone in every possible way collapses into a cacophony of colors and symbols.
These different approaches to persuasion are seen in advertising for all manner of other products, from products to services to concepts in Afghanistan. What’s the difference?
The ads produced by those with a direct stake in winning is made by people closer to the audience it is attending to address.
The public service ad was well-intentioned, but made largely by foreign artists trying to adapt to local aesthetics, and the desire to explain gets bogged down in confusion. It is the product of focus groups and field testing, in a way that probably fits good technical standards but still misses its mark.
This is the worrying bit.
In the larger context of war, infrastructure and stability, the government of Afghanistan — as the technocratic product of a massive aid infusion and technocratic bureaucracies — falls short on the emotional plane where Afghans would like to see a state. It loses the feeling it needs to reach the average guy. Relatively few Afghans agree with the Taliban, but those who do have something the others lack: Enthusiasm.
– Scott Bohlinger