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Candidates Say Lack of Security Harms Their Chances

In unstable regions, many candidates fear they will lose out to rivals with better protection.
Not everyone is allowed to know that Rawaa al-Oggaidi is running for office.

“I receive phone calls asking me if I’m taking part in the polls. I deny it, saying I’ve been mistaken for someone with a similar name,” said the candidate from Mosul, one of Iraq’s most violent cities.

Other precautions Oggaidi takes against attack include staying indoors all the time and limiting her campaign team to close relatives. A member of the opposition Iraqiya list, she only makes direct contact with friends and trusted supporters, mostly through the phone or the internet.

“I’ve turned my home into a workshop. My husband and family help promote my message by circulating flyers,” she said.

“If it wasn’t for the current security situation, I would be visiting schools and hospitals and holding discussions with the voters.”

Iraq holds a nationwide parliamentary election on March 7, and candidates in several provinces fear the threat of violence could harm their chances. Many entering the race independently, or with smaller or opposition blocs, say they cannot afford the security available to better-funded rivals.

Cramped by danger, their campaign styles combine state of the art and more traditional methods: text messages and websites together with appeals communicated through clan and tribal channels.

The outsiders in the race claim the insecurity favours the incumbents. They say candidates backed by relatively powerful parties can call on more protection, and therefore move around with relative ease on the campaign trail.

The charge is denied by election commission officials and some leaders of the stronger blocs, who argue that security has generally improved and those threats that remain affect all candidates.

Though the bloodshed in Iraq is less than it was at the time of the 2005 parliamentary vote, many contenders in this election still feel they are risking their lives. Candidates’ names were kept secret in the previous poll because of security fears, forcing voters to choose between blocs rather than individuals. This time, the names have been made public – a move that has heightened safety concerns in some provinces.

Violence has been rising in the campaign period, particularly in regions with a large Sunni Arab or mixed population. At least two candidates have been murdered so far.

“Government officials have troops protecting them. They can have roads shut down wherever they go,” said Ahmed Ganem, a candidate from Anbar province with the Iraqi Movement for Dialogue and Change, a small bloc. “We don’t have that kind of power. It’s totally unfair.”

Waaiya Jalal al-Hanafi, a candidate from Baghdad, said there was a vast gulf between candidates’ campaigns.

“Because of our limited budget, we are almost invisible,” he said. “We are also afraid of being killed, so we can’t move freely, hold gatherings and educate people about our message.”

Hanafi is a member of the Unity Alliance of Iraq, a bloc whose leader, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, is being seen as an opposition figure in this election because he has avoided making alliances with the Shia-led coalitions that dominate the government.

Though Bolani recently addressed a large rally in Baghdad, Hanafi said he feared for his own safety and - unlike Bolani - could not move around freely or hold gatherings.

Talal Jumaa al-Jiburi, a candidate from Diyala for the Iraqi Accord Front, a Sunni Arab bloc that has seen several high-profile leaders defect to other coalitions, said danger had restricted his campaign’s reach.

“I can’t visit areas of Diyala that are controlled by armed groups, as well as Shia Arab areas controlled by Shia parties,” he said. “I’m certain we would have a better chance of winning if we could campaign in these parts.”

Iman Mosa Hamadi, a candidate for the Iraqiya bloc in Anbar province, said she was particularly worried about hardline Sunni insurgents. “We don’t fear the competition of other blocs or parties as much as we fear al-Qaeda,” she said.

In February, a statement purportedly released by the largely homegrown insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq labeled the elections a crime and announced plans for their sabotage. In Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad, bombers killed more than 30 people on March 3, attacking government buildings and a hospital.

In Anbar province, west of the capital, official buildings and security forces have been struck by bombs in recent weeks.

In the northern city of Mosul, a new wave of killings has targeted the Christian minority. In Baghdad, meanwhile, the months leading up to the election have been punctuated by massive bombings destroying ministries and hotels.

Officials from IHEC, the Iraqi election commission, declined to comment on candidates’ access to protection on the campaign trail. However, they said, inequalities in the parties’ budgets would inevitably affect the result of the election.

“Bigger blocs have more exposure to the public and this could give them a better chance of winning,” Qassim al-Abudi, an IHEC spokesman, said. “This is the reality.”

He added that IHEC was tasked with investigating complaints of violations but had no authority to look into funding.

Karim al-Tamimi, an IHEC commissioner, said gaps in legislation had led to the discrepancies in the scale of campaigning. “The law for regulating political funding has yet to be ratified,” he said.

A candidate from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition insisted he had been able to canvass for votes freely, thanks to better security.

“I didn’t face any difficulty campaigning in any part of Iraq or Baghdad. This was not because we were backed by the government or security forces, but because security as a whole has improved,” Haider al-Abadi told IWPR.

“Some candidates might complain about the inequality in exposure to the public but this is normal and happens everywhere,” he said.

“We have been working in government for four years. You cannot compare us to a party or candidate that has today decided to run for election. The weight of people’s support is the decisive factor, not security or the presence of private guards.”

In Anbar province, however, a candidate from Bolani’s Unity Alliance of Iraq dismissed claims that improvements in security had made campaigning much easier.

“If the security situation was normal, I would contact people personally,” Faris Taha said. “I would hold meetings and tribal forums in government institutions and clubs.”

Taha, a member of Anbar’s provincial council, insisted he had provided for his own security on the campaign trail, “I chose my bodyguards from among my trusted relatives and have paid for them from my own expenses.

“Whoever says I can move around easily is wrong. Even officials with big security teams fear bombs. I don’t want to risk my life.”

However, Taha also dismissed the complaint that smaller candidates were unable to campaign freely because of security concerns. He argued that prominent public figures running for election faced greater danger than the newcomers, who were less well known.

“New candidates have a better chance of mixing with people than the officials,” he said.

For many candidates in Diyala, Anbar and Mosul, the campaign has so far demanded a blend of secrecy and selective self-promotion.

Several of them told IWPR they had enlisted members of their extended family as bodyguards. Many said they did not leave the house, or did not publicise their movements. Most said they relied heavily on printed flyers and campaign banners to promote their message.

In Mosul, a candidate who asked not to be named, told IWPR he was not taking any risks, “I stay at home, where I receive guests and contacts. I know my campaign is weak but I am relying on the support of my tribe.”

Jiburi, the candidate from Diyala, said he had received several threatening messages but was not troubled by them.

“I know those who threatened me are not armed, because if they were, they wouldn’t have sent messages. They would have carried out their threat,” he said.

IWPR-trained reporters in Mosul, Ramadi, Baghdad and Baquba contributed to this report. Their names have been withheld as a security precaution.

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