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Candidates Embrace New Technology

Parliamentary hopefuls use text messages, social networking sites to reach voters.
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Politicians are tapping into the powers of new technology to attract young and educated voters ahead of next week's parliamentary vote.



Since election season began last month, Iraqis have been flooded with text messages and emails from candidates. Online campaign ads direct Iraqi users to politicians’ personal websites which detail their accomplishments, speeches and political platforms.



“New technology is the foundation of my election campaign. I have sent many emails and created a Facebook page for my fans. In my page I put my CV, pictures and my number on my list," Allaa al-Jubury, a candidate with the Unity Alliance of Iraq, said.



“Through the Internet I can also reach Iraqis in neighbouring countries like Jordan, where campaigning [by Iraqi candidates] is not allowed,” Jubury added.



The Open Net Initiative, an online marketing watchdog, reports that 80 per cent of Iraq's estimated 27 million people own a cell phone and more than 12 million are frequent Internet users. Because roughly 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 35, candidates have been eager to reach these voters through technology.



“The campaigning strategies have widened. I learned from election campaigns in other countries like the United States and Kuwait. Most of the candidates have international campaign consultants. So in this election, we have learned modern ways of campaigning we had not known before," Fayiza Baba Khan, a parliamentary candidate from Kurdistani Alliance, said.



Social networking sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are being widely used by tech-savvy politicians eager to harness the inexpensive and far-reaching impact of the internet.



Iraqi Facebook users are often asked to join election groups, such as the 333 Iraqiya list, a page sponsored by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, head of the Iraqiya party. Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, head of the Unity Alliance of Iraq, also maintains a Facebook page, as does Hamid Rahim "Mam" Rostam, a former Peshmerga commander who is now the most prominent leader of the Kurdish opposition movement Change in Kirkuk.



Digital election banners have been splashed atop Iraqi Facebook users’ home pages. The campaign ads frequently target voters logging in from the candidate’s province.



“I think the candidates’ new campaign [techniques] in this election are cool,” said Ahmed Abdul Aziz, 40, a computer engineer in Baghdad. “I hope we can one day vote electronically.



“I follow the candidates' pages on internet and their involvement in new technology. One thing I have noticed is that the major parties control the SMS messages because they are powerful and rich. The small parties and candidates are on social networking sites.”



The Independent High Electoral Commission, IHEC has welcomed the emergence of e-campaigning and has used it to monitor the election process.



“We have noticed that in this election for Iraqi parliament most of the electoral lists and candidates use the e-campaign. When we see violations online we can address them quickly. Also the [internet] helps us send IHEC’s recommendations to the candidates and lists," Handren Muhamad, head of IHEC’s office in Erbil office, said.



"So far we have not received any complaints about e-campaigning, and this is a good sign.”



However, the internet and mass-messaging campaigns have downsides as well, Meison al-Dumology, a candidate from the Iraqiya list, said.



He said that images have been digitally altered to embarrass candidates and sites were hacked into and littered with profanities.



"We have received some complaints about e-campaigns. Some of the candidates used Facebook, YouTube and email before the official start of the election campaign,” Hogar Chato, spokesman for the Baghdad-based Sun Network elections watchdog, said.



Despite the misuses, Chato believes the use of internet and new technology is a sign of political development and Iraqis' growing awareness of the democratic process.



“Unlike posters, e-campaigning is cheap. Some candidates can't afford advertising, but can still reach people with the internet. What is important for us is that the new technology has reduced violations of the election rules,” he said.



Still, for some the new strategies have taken some getting used to. Retired teacher and father-of-eight Shawkat Jalil, 65, recalls past decades when democratic options in Iraq were decidedly more limited.



During Saddam Hussein’s regime, he said, “we never had election campaigns or a crazy atmosphere like this. We were told by our bosses that today is an election and a curfew will be imposed. Then we were told that we must vote for Saddam - he was the only candidate.



"Now every day my children check the internet and they tell me the news. I guess the internet now has more news than TV and newspapers about this election and candidates. Someday I must learn to use it.”



Zaineb Naji is an IWPR-trained reporter in Baghdad. IWPR-trained journalist Barham Omar contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah.

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