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

Anti-Baathist Campaigning Overshadows Issues

Services, security and corruption take a backseat as election centres on Baathism.
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A quick study of the election posters recently plastered up along a street in downtown Baghdad gives an insight into the political campaign agenda ahead of a nationwide ballot on March 7.


In the space of a city block, campaign banners read, "There is no place for Baathists", "Revenge to the Baathists who mistreated you", and "No return of the Baathist criminals".


Several others echo the same sentiments.


Only one poster along the road promises something different. "We will work to solve the unemployment problem", proclaims a lonely placard nearly lost on a wall plastered with strident rhetoric.


The prevalence of anti-Baathist sloganeering is not confined to the streets. Television, radio and print media have run daily coverage of the campaigns against the previous regime’s party, and prominent politicians have engaged in one-upmanship over who has the hardest line against the party, which ruled Iraq with an iron fist for nearly three decades and is now illegal.


Leaders tainted with the accusation of Baath party links have been equally vociferous in their own defence.


But some Baghdad residents are wondering whether anti-Baathist grandstanding has overshadowed substantive political discussion, and if seemingly more important issues – such as security, corruption and lack of services – have simply been ignored.


"What about the millions of people who don’t have jobs? Iraqis want security, electricity and jobs. We were glad after the fall [of the Baath regime] in 2003 because we thought things would change,” said Anwar Fadhil Kareem, 35, a Baghdad hospitality worker with two children.


"After seven years, this hope has been lost. It would be wise and appropriate for those in charge to do something for the people, but they're not even talking about us."


Others in Baghdad are waiting for candidates plans and pledges for the future of Iraq, but say few are addressing those issues.


“I haven't made my decision about who to vote for yet. I want to vote. I want to say my word, but I don't know who to choose. Everybody is talking about the Baath party and de-Baathification which is not my concern at all," said Moqdad Jasim, 22, a student at Baghdad University.


“In fact, I am looking for a candidate who can promise solutions to Iraqi youth problems - unemployment, good jobs and education."


A government committee’s decision to ban 145 parliamentary candidates for their alleged ties to the outlawed Baath party has fueled anti-Baathist sentiments and galvanised Iraq’s ruling Shia parties.


Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and its main rival, the Iraqi National Alliance, a powerful bloc of mostly Shia parties, are campaigning hard on platforms to eliminate Baathist influence, especially in largely Shia areas that suffered under the former regime.


The painful memories of cruel treatment at the hands of the former regime appear to have stirred anti-Baathist fears among some voters. But others are sceptical of the likelihood of Baathist resurgence.


“Talking about the returning of the Baath party is meaningless. Iraq will never see a Baath regime again. Maybe some former Baathist have infiltrated some political parties, but they can't control Iraq forever," said Iraqi minister of state Ali Muhammad, from the Kurdistan Islamic Union.


“I think some people to play the ‘Baath card’ before the election to gain more votes,” he added.


Other politicians are concerned that the choice and timing of the rhetoric is a ploy to keep voters from asking tough questions about the current government's accomplishments.


Mithal al-Alusi, a lawmaker from the secular Iraq Nation party, told IWPR that the anti-Baath talk is party propaganda disseminated by Islamist parties worried about competition from secular candidates.


"They can’t talk about providing security or good standards of living because they have already promised their people these things and then disappointed them. The Baath issue is the only choice they have to rally support," Alusi said.


Fadhil al-Amiri, a political science professor at Baghdad University, suggests that the ruling political parties are hiding behind anti-Baathist rhetoric to avoid addressing the public's demands.


"These parties claim the Baathist are returning because large segments of Iraqi society have suffered from this party. However, these political parties realise very well that it is no good to promise once again that they will improve security, public services and the economy,” Amiri said. “This is why they've been downplaying the issues in their election campaigns."


But those who claim that Baathist influence remains a threat to Iraq argue that their stance is not political.


“I admit the Baathist threat is not as big as some claim, but it is still a dangerous and important issue,” Arakan Rashid, an economic adviser to Maliki, said. “The Baath party is banned by the constitution, but no one can deny it doesn’t exist. They have meetings and are trying to organise themselves. They could penetrate Sunni secular groups. They are dangerous and can’t be allowed to come back.”


The anti-Baathist campaign strategy is a sharp deviation for the State of Law coalition, which ran a successful campaign emphasising services and security in the 2009 provincial council elections. Last autumn, the Iraqi National Alliance indicated that it would emulate this populist, non-sectarian platform. [See: Iraq Eyes Post-Sectarian Politics]


"Things got more complicated after the ban, especially because politicians in Iraq still lack the culture of democratic competition and peaceful exchange of authority," said Hamdiyah al-Husseini, an Independent High Electoral Commission official.


"The fiery accusations have negatively reflected on the democratic process and the Iraqi citizens who suffer a lot from these political disputes."


Ali Kareem is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad. IWPR editorial staffers Abeer Mohammed and Charles McDermid contributed to this report from Baghdad and Sulaimaniyah.