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Baghdadis Bemoan Election Detritus

As political campaigning grips Iraqi capital, ugly remnants of previous polls irk residents.
By Husam al-Saray
Baghdadis affronted by the unsightliness of leftover posters from past election campaigns say they fear their city will be disfigured further by the coming polls.

Campaigning started officially on February 12 and in central Baghdad’s Firdous Square, giant banners advertising major contenders for the March ballot look down on the traffic, surrounded by scores of smaller placards and pennants.

Juxtaposed with the latest round of propaganda are countless posters left over from previous polls. Some are from the provincial council elections over a year ago. Others date to the last nationwide parliamentary vote in 2005.

Cartoonist Abed al-Rahim Yassir said the indiscriminate advertising was counter-productive.

“The relentless infringement of campaign ads on Baghdad’s buildings is doing as much harm to the candidates as to the city itself,” he said.

Yassir has mocked ineffective campaign rules with a cartoon depicting a man covering a wall with posters bearing the slogan, “Do not put posters on this wall”.

Graphic artist Karim Jabbar also questioned the value of traditional campaign ads in public places.

“Election posters have very little impact on Iraqi voters,” he said. “Their convictions are formed though conversation in teashops and bazaars, or through following debates on TV and the radio.”

Art critic Jawad al-Zaydi said the residual posters “contributed to the ugliness of the city, with its concrete walls, cratered streets, rubble and garbage”.

Outdated election posters have for years been part of the landscape of central Baghdad. In the Mansour and Iskan districts, commercial billboards for car mechanics overlap with old campaign ads featuring candidates in suits and ties.

The posters rarely appear in isolation. The presence of one swiftly attracts others, until entire surfaces are covered by ads competing for attention. Portraits of smiling politicians are often crudely defaced with blacked-out teeth or scribbled-on beards.

The Karkh and Rusafa districts have countless posters dating to the 2005 election. Some seem impossible to remove, glued to iron plates on high poles or untouchable behind a tangle of electrical wires. On tall buildings near government offices, faded election hoardings stand beside nationalistic posters reminding Iraqis that “terrorism has no religion” or that “the Americans are leaving, but we are staying”.

According to Haydar Kammounah, a Baghdad architect, the haphazard proliferation of political advertising is a form of “visual pollution”. He urged the authorities to provide “special spaces near pedestrian crossings that are reserved for commercial advertisements and election posters”.

The Iraqi High Election Commission, IHEC, and the Baghdad municipality jointly oversee the use of the capital’s public spaces by election campaigns.

In an interview with IWPR in January, IHEC official Hamdiya al-Husseini said the removal of old campaign posters was essential “in order to remove any confusion between the numbers assigned to new electoral lists and those assigned for old ones”.

However, as the new campaign kicked off in February, many of the old posters were still visible. Both IHEC and the municipality said they had worked hard to take down ads from previous elections but were thwarted by the scale of the task.

“These posters were pasted with very adhesive material, so the municipality had a tough time removing them. In addition there was scarcely a spot in Baghdad which did not have a poster on it,” Saber al-Esawi, the mayor of Baghdad, said.

He added that financial penalties imposed for past violations of campaign law were “very modest” and did not cover the wages of the workers hired to remove the posters. Political entities were charged ten million dinars (roughly 9,000 US dollars) each for the violations, he said.

A member of Iraq’s election commission, Karim al-Tamimi, also blamed political blocs for disobeying the rules during past campaigns.

“These posters should have been removed long before the start of campaigning but the political entities did not comply, despite the imposition of financial penalties,” he said.

Both Tamimi and Esawi said the rules had been tightened for the latest campaign. Tougher penalties had been introduced for violations and the use of paper posters, paint and adhesives had been banned.

Candidates have been told to limit themselves to flexible banners made of cloth or plastic that can be removed easily after the campaign. They have also been urged to make more use of advertising in the press to get their message across.

A representative of a major political bloc told IWPR that a number of groups shared the blame for the old campaign clutter.

“All political blocs are responsible for the posters that remain in the streets,” said Faleh al-Fayad, a legislator from the Iraqi National Coalition. He also accused IHEC of having failed to take action over past violations and said the Baghdad municipality had focused on cleaning streets and sidewalks but neglected the walls.

Fayad said he expected the new rules brought in by IHEC and the municipality to be effective. “This will be the cleanest campaign in terms of preserving Baghdad’s beauty,” he said.

If there were any violations, he added, they would be committed by “small lists and independent candidates” who are “not aware of the new rules”. Candidates with limited financial resources were more likely to use paper banners, in violation of the new guidelines, Fayad said.

However, a candidate with a small bloc said the large coalitions were seeking to scapegoat smaller rivals while flouting the rules themselves.

“The big blocs have defaced Baghdad and the Iraqi provinces with their extravagant campaigns,” Kazem al-Rubaie of the Ihrar bloc said. “They place hundreds of posters in a single street, where a few would suffice.”

Jaded commentators wish future election campaigns would spare the capital’s public spaces.

“Political leaders ought not to be so narcissistic as to let their photos deform the countenance of Baghdad,” Haval Zakhowi, chief editor of the liberal Al-Ahali newspaper, said.

The posters, he said, will be hard to remove, “They will be regarded as objects of derision by most Iraqis, as they carry the same hackneyed slogans and empty promises.”

Hosam al-Saray is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad. IWPR-trained journalist Ali Kareem also contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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