“People need to see a real change in Basra and are looking for a savior. Al-Maliki has become this savior,” said Abu Rabeh, leader of the Arab Socialist Movement.
Thirty five council seats were up for grabs between 1,281 candidates in a campaign that has seen heated debate. For the past month big balloons with pictures of candidates have been flying across the city (many of them later shot down by small-arms fire from competing groups) and cars roaming the streets with loudspeakers calling on people to vote for their candidate. Moreover, these campaigns have cost more than ever before, with the mayor said to have spent 600 million Iraqi Dinars on his campaign alone.
If al-Maliki does secure control of the province it will be a huge boost to his national status and further legitimize his nationalist rhetoric. Much of his support in Basra has emerged on the back of his government’s successful military intervention to rid the city of Shiite militias.Despite the fierce campaigning, turnout on Election Day was weak. The Independent High Election Commission (IHEC) said that only 48% of eligible voters cast their ballot, pointing to a widespread frustration with the political process and empty promises of the different parties.
The defamation campaigns between rival parties, which became a feature of the campaign period, continued even after the end of voting, with accusations of fraud made as soon as the poll booths closed.
The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), a former ally of al-Maliki’s, was among the first parties to attack him, accusing him of abusing the government owned media and other state resources during his electoral campaign. They also said he bribed the displaced and squatters. Rumors spread through Basra that groups of people, without clear affiliation, were touring areas inhibited by the displaced and registering names to receive government land in exchange for pledges of support.
That being said, the IHEC was quick to state that many of the displaced could not actually vote as they were not properly registered.
Meanwhile, critics accused religious parties of their own form of illegitimate inducement. In al-Qublah and Rumail areas, party officials from religious parties that have seen a fall in popularity, were calling on people to vote for Islamic parties reminding them of God’s wrath if they failed to do so.
Yet even as religious parties have lost popular support, observers are not sure that secular parties will take advantage. Al-Maliki’s Dawa party is itself a Shiite Islamic party, even if his State of Law Coalition has distanced itself from an Islamic rhetoric.“Secular parties were offered a big opportunity but they didn’t take advantage of it properly because of the absence of good propaganda and diplomacy,” said Abu Rabeh, the leader of the Arab Socialist Movement.
On Election Day itself the biggest controversy in Basra was the tour of polling booths by the Iranian consul. No one at the IHEC was able to explain how he secured the authorization to enter polling centers. However, large numbers of badges were provided to various party members and it is assumed that he gained access through one of them. His presence drew attention away from the many party members who crowded the different polling centers, in name as observers, but in reality encouraging voters to choose their candidates.