There are laws that are supposed to restrict such behaviour but every individual, party and bloc engaged in the election is willing to use almost all means available to win votes. And in Najaf especially, winning votes means aligning with the religious powers.
As 7th March draws nearer it’s not just al-Maliki who is trying to play the faith card. Even the non-Islamic parties are keen to convince the electorate that their campaign is endorsed by the religious authorities.
Hasan Ibrahimi, the regional coordinator of the Shams network, which is concerned with monitoring elections in Iraq, explained this phenomenon.
“We do expect this behaviour from politicians because, in order to get popular support, the support approval of the religious authorities is vital,” adding, “In the previous elections, politicians also used religious authorities to further their ends. The clerics didn’t declare support for any party over another. Any rumours about such support are mere electoral propaganda.”
The influence of religious leaders in Iraqi politics has increased greatly since the fall of Saddam, with the religious authorities not only freer but perfectly placed to step into the power vacuum left by the disappearance of the Ba’ath party.
In Najaf, the most prominent ayatollahs, Sistani, Basheer al-Najafi, Muhammad al-Hakeen and Muhammad al-Fayyad all agreed not to interfere in the political or electoral process. Although other notable religious personalities, such as ayatollah al-Yaaqoubi, whose party had seats on provincial councils and in the current parliament, have created their own political parties and started to promote them, those who have steered clear of an overt involvement in political affairs have actually retained greater influence on voters’ choices.
In the 2005 elections, turnout reached 70%, with many voters attending polls because religious authorities not only supported polling but declared participation a relgious dutyShi’ite political blocs were particularly successful in 2005, claiming that this stance effectively endorsed their list along sectarian lines.
Today, there is concern that a similar situation will come about in this election. Naser al-Asadi, a clergyman and a member of Sadeq al-Shirazi’s office in Karbala, acknowledges that the religious authorities play a role in the election.
“This role, however, shouldn’t be to clearly announce its support to any particular political entity,” he said, adding that such promotion is a contradiction of the status and obligations of religious leaders.
“The religious authority should be the big umbrella over all parties. If any party is deprived from having shelter under this umbrella, the religious authorities loses its credibility.”
Some political parties are still distrustful of the religious authorities, believing they may choose to declare support for one party at the expense of others, despite assurances to the contrary.
Hussein al-Amiri, the director of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) Information office in Karbala, said that these fears are exaggerated and told Niqash that “IHEC’s instructions ban the use of religion in the electoral campaigns,” adding that, “The penalties for violation of these instructions are severe and include depriving those who do so the right to compete in elections. It’s a powerful check that parties would dare not break.”