In the New Valley cemetery in Karbala, groups compete to distribute their cards among the graveyard’s visitors. Some give out sweets as a way to show they care about the mourners’ losses but also in the hope that it might sway these potential voters to vote for their candidate.
“Candidates for the provincial elections last year used the same method,” says Jawad al-Kuaibi, the gravedigger at New Valley. “They used the fact that the electoral campaign began during Eid al-Adha to promote their lists in the cemeteries. They knew that during the festival there would be larger numbers of people visiting their loved ones.”
During religious occasions like Eid al-Adha, the numbers visiting Iraq’s cemeteries can reach hundreds of thousands. Thursdays and Fridays are especially popular days – for visitors and election campaigners.
“This is the best time for candidates because the visitors are coming from all parts of the country,” Kuaibi asserts.
The story is the same at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery in Najaf, where, for over 1,400 years, Shi’ites from all over the world have brought their loved ones to be buried, believing it to be within the mythical Garden of Eden. Wadi al-Salam is the world’s second biggest cemetery. As such, it has become an excellent platform for political campaigners.
The cemetery has been central in Iraq’s history, especially in more modern times. It is full of mazes and secret pathways that were used by resistance movements to cache weapons during the British occupation. The same passages were destroyed during the Shi’ite uprising against Saddam’s regime in 1991. The Americans are also part of the list of abusers of the sacred ground, bombing Mahdi Army fighters who were hiding out there.
36 year-old Hameed Abdul-Sattar knows this history well. He hoped the exploitation had ended but is shocked to see political parties using the graveyard for political campaigning.
“Exploiting the cemetery again for electoral campaigns is an infringement to the sanctity of the dead people and to those who visit their relatives and beloved ones buried in this cemetery during the holy days,” he says.
“By doing so, they are re-establishing the traditions of the imperial forces and dictatorships that have ruled Iraq,” he continues angrily.
Campaigning in cemeteries is becoming more sophisticated. Some candidates use three-wheeled vehicles called Susta, normally used for transport, to promote themselves. They have literally become propaganda vehicles, with candidates’ pictures and their numbers hanging from them. Campaigners shout from the back and the drivers blow their horns, alerting people to the names of candidates, their parties and their numbers within their lists.
Ismail Hussein owns a Susta. He says that candidates pay the Susta owner monthly rent of around 100-150 Iraqi Dinars (US$85-127). They can then use them to advertise their campaign to cemetery visitors in the run-up to the election.
“In the provincial elections held early last year, some political parties and candidates did not pay the agreed upon rent and this is why we have opted now to charge the amount in advance,” Hussein says ruefully.
Despite the growing number of persons working to promote candidates in cemeteries, many of them realise that it is not easy to convince people to vote for one candidate or the other. Often, when they approach people in cemeteries, they are greeted by people shaking their heads, indicating they have already chosen their candidates or as a way to keep their distance from the promoters and tell them that they came to the cemetery to mourn, not for politics.
“We give them promises that we will elect their candidates, and when they leave, we throw away the cards,” says an old woman standing beside her husband’s grave. “I don't know why they are allowed to enter the cemetery. We are here to visit our relatives not to elect candidate!”