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the big parties get ahead

Saleem al-Wazzan
The Baghdad-Basra highway is getting busy. The leaders of the bigger political blocs are clogging up the roads as they visit the southern city to mobilise its voters.
1.02.2010  |  Basra

Some Basra residents do not hide their resentment of the security procedures, the blocking of roads and major highways as the convoys come to the city. They are particularly irritated because the election campaign has not yet officially begun.

Ali Mizel, a taxi driver, told Niqash “The vice-president, Tareq al-Hashimi, came yesterday and today. Former prime minister, Ibrahim al-Ja’fari, has paid a visit, too. Tomorrow, former Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, will come. Politicians only remember that Basra exists during their election campaigns and they bring their Baghdad traffic jams with them.”

The official date for the launch of election campaigning has not yet been announced. Candidates’ names require approval before anything can be done. In Basra and its districts, though, the streets are already full of pictures and posters of Iraqi government officials and party leaders from nearly 30 political entities, competing for 25 seats. Some of the banners are even hung from government buildings.

In the markets of al-Ashar, posters hang in tribute to Dr. Shitalgh Abboud, the governor of the province and a member of the Dawa party. He is thanked in the posters for his efforts in keeping rents in the area fixed. It is a similar situation in al-Zabair, 20km West of Basra, where Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party is thanked for installing street lighting. Amid the old roads in desperate need of repair and improvement, the irony is not lost on local residents.

Local resident, Hamid Assaf, said he is astonished, as the district’s governor does not cooperate with state institutions but rather with political parties.

“Lighting the streets and removing the accumulated garbage does not require the involvement of political parties. It is the job of the electricity department and the municipalities.”

In the same streets, signs hung bearing religious slogans welcoming former prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, with pictures of him practising religious rituals, including visiting Mecca.

Supporters of Ahmad al-Chalabi, who is heading the accountability and justice commission, hung banners celebrating his “sharp sword,” after his exclusion of over 500 candidates, mainly Sunnis, under laws preventing candidates with Baath party affiliations from running in elections.

Print shops, which consider the election a golden opportunity to make money, compete against each other to print the posters, photos, leaflets, and banners of the different political entities and candidates.

Hajj Naser al-Hassan, owner of the al-Risala print shop in Basra City, said that the election period brings economic recovery to print shops.

“We work for 24 hours a day without a break,” he said, continuing, “Candidates are now asking for new designs, new kinds of cloth and paper, different from previous elections.”

Local televisions and radio stations, such as Shatt al-Arab, al-Mirbad and al-Amal have started broadcasting interviews with some of the political candidates. The interviews concentrate on the role of the candidates in improving services and their positions on foreign affairs and the Accountability and Justice Commission’s recent decisions.

The bigger parties are in a far better position to start their campaigns early and to spend more money on their campaigns both before and after official campaigning starts. Many believe that the lack of a law restricting expenditure gives an unfair advantage to well-funded parties.

Abbas al-Jourani, from the Iraqi Communist Party’s local committee in Basra said, “Political parties that receive external funds can spend more on their electoral campaign and bribe voters to vote for them.”

He does not see much hope for any great changes, either. “Things will not be different this time from the last elections, when parties used all media outlets to serve their interests and when they used bribery and gave people food and generators to vote for them.”

Hazem al-Rubaiei, the director of the Electoral Commission in Basra, admitted that it is not easy to control the spending made by political parties and entities in the elections. He complained that no law stipulating a ceiling to expenditure on electoral campaigns exists. Additionally, there is no control whatsoever over the sources of funding for these campaign, according to al-Rubaei.

“There is no limitations to spending during electoral campaigns because there is no law in place to organize the work of political parties,” he said. The result of this is not only that the bigger parties can spend more but also that they can launch their campaigns much earlier and prolong the amount of time their candidates remain in the public eye.

(Photo by Saleen Al Wazzam/ Niqash.org)