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

Iraqis Gear Up for Elections

The alliances vying for a place in the National Assembly are wooing an electorate weary of violence and unemployment.
By Zaineb Naji
Political fervour is mounting on the streets of Baghdad and in the Iraqi media ahead of the country's parliamentary elections.

Iraqis will go to the polls on December 15 to vote in the country's second elections since Saddam Hussein was ousted in April 2003. The political slates are more diverse - and more contentious - than during the January elections, but people in Baghdad are suffering from many of the same problems as earlier this year. Unemployment, violence and poor public services such as electricity hinder the day-to-day lives of residents.

"These are the important issues that matter to voters, and they are the lowest common denominator of most of the agendas of parties participating in the elections," said Jenan Mubarak, director of the Iraqi Centre for Women's Rehabilitation and Employment.

Unlike in January, when Iraqis chose a temporary National Assembly primarily tasked with drafting a post-Baathist constitution, voters this time will new elect political slates that will hold parliamentary seats for four years. Twenty alliances are vying for the National Assembly's 275 seats.

They are trying to court voters with diverse slogans that promise everything from great leadership and improved security to eradicating corruption. Their messages are plastered on posters throughout Baghdad's streets and carried through media owned by powerful candidates.

While some television stations such as the government's Al-Iraqiyah channel encourage citizens to go to the polls, other media unabashedly splash the number of the coalition they support – often the one that pays their bills – at the top of the television channel or newspaper.

The three-digit number is key in the election, because candidates want to make sure their supporters check the correct number when they get into the voting booth. Many have promoted their bloc's numbers so heavily that the actual name of the alliance often lies in small print next to the figure.

Many candidates have adopted dirty tactics including name-calling and the tearing down of rival posters, particularly those of liberal and Sunni Arab slates. Some posters have been scrawled with the words "Baathists" or "Saddamists" in reference to the former Iraqi regime.

On the flip side, in the Sunni Arab al-Adhamiyah neighbourhood, all banners have been removed except for those supporting list 618. It marks the Sunni's Iraqi Accord Front, which is running on a platform advocating "clean hands" that rids Iraq of its US-led occupation forces and changes Iraq's recently-approved constitution to include Sunni demands. It also speaks out against sectarianism and ethnic strife.

In that sense, its policy position is similar to that of former prime minister and secularist Shia Ayad Allawi, whose face graces posters for his Iraqi National List, which promises to unify Iraqis and end the violence.

Sunni Arab parties are for the first time since 2003 recognising Iraq's new political system by competing in the elections. They held a disproportionately low number of seats in the temporary parliament and are expected to draw a larger number of voters from Sunni Arab areas. Most observers believe that Sunni Arabs will win enough seats to diversify the new parliament, which is now dominated by the Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance.

"The next government will be a balanced one because all political spectrums will take part," said Muhammed Shahab, deputy secretary-general of the United Iraqi Alliance. "It will also be a strong government that able to practice the rule of law and preserve security and order."

The government is adopting strict security measures ahead of the polls to try to prevent attacks. Checkpoints have been set up throughout Baghdad, and all of Iraq's borders are shut down. As of last week, the government also banned non-Iraqi Arabs from entering the country, even if they held valid visas or residency permits.

In Iraq's multi-religious, multi-ethnic capital, voters are united in yearning for better lives, but their political leanings are all over the map. It is unclear if the media campaigns are influencing voters or if they are reinforcing their support.

A poll of about 2,400 potential voters by al-Sabah newspaper found 54 per cent would support alliances based on their political programmes, while 23 per cent were influenced by the sectarian or ethnic identities of slate members. Star power also carried weight – 20 per cent said they would support alliances based on their personal knowledge of the names of candidates.

"I'll vote for Allawi's list, because he is a strong man and can lead the country and get us out of the current situation," said a 32-year-old taxi driver, Radhi Shanshal, from Baghdad's al-Bayya neighbourhood.

Several alliances also carry religious undertones like the United Iraqi Alliance and the Islamic Coalition.

"I'll vote for the list 555 [United Iraqi Alliance], because it represents the Shias," said Khalid Hasan, a 30-year-old restaurant worker from Baghdad's Babil Muadham neighbourhood.

The United Iraqi Alliance is expected to lose some of its power in parliament due to new Sunni Arab slates competing for seats. The alliance is also expected to lose seats to leaders who have broken from it, in part because it was becoming too religious.

Some other lists have adopted slogans to do with at building Iraq, such as the Iraqi National Congress headed by deputy prime minister Ahmed al-Chalabi. He is a former United Iraqi Alliance candidate and a secular Shia running on a platform emphasising economic growth and social services. Others draw on voters' ethnic identities by promising to defend the rights of minorities, like the Turkoman parties.

Ahmed Nashat, a 38-year-old civil servant in Kirkuk, northern Iraq, said as a Sunni Turkoman, he supported the Turkoman alliance but also favoured the Iraqi Accord Front.

"I don't vote for a list based on its political programme but based on who represents it," he said. "I think most Iraqis do the same. Committing to political programmes is very difficult, especially under this chaotic security situation."

Still others are already tired of politics as Iraq gears up for its second post-Baathist election.

"I don't think that the [alliances'] agendas are real," said Isa Saleem Muhandis, 40, from Baghdad. "They are only words designed to get people to vote for them."

Zaineb Naji is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.