As campaigning gains speed, observers are pointing to the presence of ‘independent’ candidates, even on religious lists, as the most noticeable new phenomenon.
Observers say that independent candidates are seeking to take advantage of widespread dissatisfaction with incumbent religious parties that have failed to provide key public services to much of the province.
Nu’man Sharif, deputy secretary-general of Najaf’s Islamic Fadhila Party says that they have included a number of independent candidates on their list because they believe “voting for religious parties will be weak because people believe that these parties have failed in providing citizens with basic services.”
Both of the major religious coalitions have also included independents on their lists. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), which currently dominates the province’s provincial council, is participating as part of the ‘Shaheed al-Miharab List and Independent Forces’ list. Meanwhile, the ‘Rule of Law’ coalition, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Daawa Party, includes the ‘Independent Grouping’, headed by Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani.
Religious parties in Najaf have not only included independents on their lists but have allowed them to present themselves as completely independent, not requiring public reference or allegiance to the larger coalition say observers.
Even as national, religious parties have sought to give themselves a new independent look, a number of local political groups have also emerged eager to take advantage of the changing political climate.
The Independent Najaf Union, led by Abdul-Hussain al-Musawi, the current head of the provincial council, the Independent Sons of Iraq list, the Independents Camp, the Independent Elites, the Independent Sons and Tribes of Najaf and the Independent Cultural Gathering are all seeking to project themselves as alternatives to the incumbent powers.
While some observers say that the inclusion of more independents on religious list is a tactical step to gain more votes, others say it is a sign of greater political openness. According to Imad al-Ghazali, head of Najaf’s ‘First Martyr Movement’, the inclusion of independents “shows that these parties are willing to absorb all of society’s political movements. These parties should not have narrow interests and personal agendas.”
Nonetheless, participants say that they do not believe that independent, secular forces can defeat the country’s dominant religious powers. Sadeq ‘Ati, coordinator of the liberal State Party, says that “liberal parties will try to establish their presence in the forthcoming elections,” but adds that he does not expect “any dramatic changes resulting from elections because religious parties are still dominant.”
Forty-one year old Nathem Muhammad, a government employee, says that his electoral choices are far wider than in the past. No longer fearing the return of baathists or the hand of al-Qaeda, Muhammad says he “can now choose those who can respond to our demands.”
As Najaf witnesses an improvement in security conditions, people are hopeful that these elections may witness the beginning of more concrete and positive change, particularly the provision of better services and the curbing of corruption.
However, others are more pessimistic and say they are unlikely to vote. Sattar Jabir, also a government employee, says he doubts that the candidates will be able to combat financial and administrative corruption. “I will not dirty my finger with election ink as I did in 2005 because I do not trust any candidate,” he says.
Nonetheless, civil society organizations are working hard to encourage a strong election turnout. Manaf Abdul-Illah, who works for the Relief and Development Organization, which has held more than 70 election seminars in Najaf, says that “around 80% of those who were reluctant to vote in the elections say that they will now cast their ballot.”