In Iraq campaigning for the upcoming general election – voting is due to be held April 30 – has included not just posters and speeches but lots of hand outs to voters. And this year this has included the holding of major, open-to-the-public banquets in various districts.
“Some candidates believe that the easiest way to convince voters, or to silence critics, is by filling their mouths with food,” Kathem Zayer, a primary school teacher in Basra, told NIQASH. “The same thing happens when there are provincial elections – there’s clearly a direct relationship between elections and banquets. Today special meals are the best way of enhancing a candidate’s image, and of burnishing the image of the party behind them.”
And during this round of campaigning it seems that banquets are more popular than ever, replacing the usual distribution of other gifts like blankets and food. Banqueting also seems to have replaced campaign promises, for things like government jobs or better services. That’s because nobody believes these promises anymore. But they can still dine out.
In the province of Basra, south of Baghdad, there are more than 750 candidates competing. Prominent parties in the area, which has a mostly Shiite Muslim population, include the State of Law list led by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is himself a Shiite Muslim as well as the list led by the Shiite Muslim-oriented Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Ahrar list, which is tied to the Sadrist movement, also Shiite Muslim. Also noteworthy in Basra is the Wataniya party, which is led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and which is trying to set itself apart as being secular and non-denominational.
By rights Basra should be one of Iraq’s wealthiest cities – it is the site of a major port and some of Iraq’s biggest oil fields are located in the surrounding province. But somehow this wealth has not had any effect on the lives of many ordinary people who live here – the poverty level in Iraq sits at around 22 percent but some recent estimates suggest that it’s higher in Basra. They say that just over a third of the population in Basra live in poverty.
And residents in Basra’s poorer areas and in the city’s slums say this is the only time they ever see their political representatives. “We only see them at these big banquets,” says Jassim Mohammed, a street vendor from one of Basra’s low-income neighbourhoods. “But it’s a very special occasion, an opportunity to fill our stomachs with food, that might not come again. Because they’ve remembered us – the poor people! I have seven children and I was able to get them all a real meal,” he enthused. “Usually I can barely buy meat once a month on the money I make. And,” Mohammed adds, “the candidates who cannot afford to put on banquets are distributing sandwiches.”
Of course, Mohammed knows the candidates are just trying to bribe him and his neighbours for their votes.
Razzaq Jabr says he has yet to find a big banquet where he can really fill his stomach. “I always hear about them,” he says. “But I’ve yet to find one. So I carry an empty pot with me and I ride around on my motorbike searching for a banquet. I will vote for any candidate who gives me and my family some meat or who fills our empty stomachs.”
All the banqueting is also having some unintended consequences in Basra – consequences that are not at all positive for the province’s poor. The demand for meat for banqueting has caused prices for livestock and butchered meat to rise.
Business is great, says Hassan Falih, who works in livestock sales in the Hay Al Hussein and Zubair areas outside of Basra city. “The price of sheep has gone up because of the demand from officials, from candidates and from tribal leaders,” he explains. “The best banquets offer lamb and mutton while the less prestigious ones serve veal or camel. And at the moment there are banquets almost every day,” he reports, smiling.
A whole sheep will set banquet-organizers back anywhere between US$250 and US$400, Falih notes. Before election campaigning started, they cost only about half this much. Other livestock traders confirm similar price increases.
As school teacher Zayer says, “all of these candidates spend huge amounts of money while those on low incomes suffer from the increased prices and the lack of any control over the markets. And,” he warns, “we have absolutely no idea when the prices will normalise again.”
Another Basra local, Mohammed Watheb, says he has had to postpone a party he was going to have to celebrate his son’s circumcision, because he can no longer afford to buy meat to serve guests. “I was so surprised at the prices,” Watheb says. “They’re much higher than before and I simply can’t afford them. So I’ve decided to postpone this celebration until after the elections when I hope prices will be more normal again.”
A local butcher, Yacoub Abu Salem, estimates he’s getting about three calls every hour enquiring about meat for banquets. He’s actually taken on extra staff to help him with butchering and preparing meat so that he can respond to all the enquiries.
It’s not just the candidates who are doing the banqueting and inviting voters. Local tribal leaders are also putting on big events that they can invite potential winning candidates to. As one local suggests, with the banquets and parties held in the wealthy neighbourhoods, it’s all about making post-election deals, rather than ensuring votes.
“This happens once every four years,” says local civil society activist Saeed al-Amiri. “Candidates believe that the shortest way to a voter’s heart is through their stomach. Yet people continue to live in poverty.”
“There are candidates who simply believe that people are numbers in a ballot box,” al-Amiri complains. “They slaughter a certain amount of sheep to win a certain amount of votes. That’s just not right. They should be winning the minds of the people by telling them about their planned programmes and their platforms. Not just stuffing them with food. That is the only way this country can recover.”