Elections without a debate
Although the Iraqi broadcasting world is now home to dozens of channels, all of which emerged shortly after 2003, one thing has not changed: Iraqi television remains as completely devoid of substance as it was under Saddam Hussein. Although the sheer number of channels can initially have a dizzying effect, a majority are actually owned by individual political parties, which only air their own party apparatchiks and Iraqi citizens that are sympathetic to their cause. Debates between candidates from different parties are unheard of, and dissenting views are never expressed to senior political figures.
Whatever discussions have taken place reveal another unpleasant reality: the major parties have yet again fielded candidates that are simply beyond the pale both substantively and in terms of their capacity to communicate ideas to the public. Al-Forat (a satellite channel that is owned by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (“ISCI”), a main component of the Iraqi National Alliance (the “INA”)) is one of the channels that have been interviewing sympathetic candidates on a rolling basis over the past few weeks. In a recent interview, Abdel-Sattar Al-Bayati, a candidate for the INA, described his party’s political programme as follows: “Firstly, we will protect the constitution. Secondly, we plan on making the government and the parliament more efficient. Thirdly, we will focus on our relations with neighboring countries and Islamic countries.” Asked what differentiated his programme from that of his rivals, he answered: “All the details are available on our website.” In other words, he has no idea.
On the same day, a candidate for the Unity of Iraq List appeared on Al-Sharqiya, a channel that leans heavily with secular parties. He described his political programme as such: “We will work to ensure that our country’s sovereignty, its government and its honour remain Iraqi, Iraqi and Iraqi”. The interview lasted an hour with hardly a substantive idea being discussed. Haider Al-Abadi, a leading member of the current Prime Minister’s State of Law Coalition, offered little more at a recent electoral rally, when he declared that his main objectives are to restore electricity as well as other services. Detailed discussions as to just how it is that the electricity supply will be restored given past failures and given Iraq’s current budget deficit were simply not available. During my last trip to Baghdad in January, I met with one of the spokesmen for Jawad Al-Bolani, the current minister of the interior and also a candidate in these elections. “We plan on reestablishing security, delivering basic services to the people, and protecting fundamental rights,” he told me. I answered that all parties espouse those same ideals and that in any event it was not up to him to be in favour of fundamental rights or not – these were a requirement under the constitution. I asked what set his party apart from the others. “The difference,” he declared, “is that we mean it. The others are lying”.
The reality however is that, whether they are aware of it or not, there is very little difference between any of the major party’s political programmes. All claim to be working towards restoring public services, improving the performance of the oil sector, improving the agricultural sector, the health sector, etc.. Although some differences in emphasis do exist, most parties simply have no choice as to their political platforms, if for no other reason than that there is a remarkable amount of agreement between Iraqis as to what the state’s functions should be and where the state has gone wrong in the past few years. Whether as a result of the country’s strong Islamic influence, or possibly as a result of decades of socialist rule, Iraqis have a strongly social slant: in their judgment, university education, public health care, and all remaining public services should be provided by the state freely to all Iraqi citizens; doctors and teachers should be state employees, and the state should be the country’s largest employer; although Islam should be the state religion, this should not lead to discrimination between citizens on the basis of race, creed or religion. An Iraqi politician who disagrees with these policies would be hard pressed to get a single vote in any election in today’s Iraq.
Competition between individuals, not policies
These principles are in fact so ingrained in the public’s collective psyche that any political party that has sought to deviate from them has seen their electoral prospects decline markedly (see for example ISCI’s sharp decline in popularity after it called for the formation of a Shia region in the south of the country). Whatever debate has been taking place has therefore been limited not to what should be done after the elections but to who should be in charge of satisfying the public’s needs. This singular fact is the driving force between all the developments that have taken place in the run up to these parliamentary elections. By way of example, the split that took place within the late United Iraqi Alliance, Iraq’s erstwhile electoral giant that claimed to represent the country’s entire Shia community, was due not to policy differences but to personal rivalries. The two components that have arisen from the Alliance’s ashes – the State of Law Coalition and the INA (a coalition between ISCI and the Sadrist Movement, as well as other minor elements) – have both sought to present themselves as post-sectarian even though they both remain dominated by religious parties. The only real difference between them has been the issue as to who should be awarded the PM’s position should the elections turn out in their favour. The State of Law Coalition naturally favours the current Prime Minister, as demonstrated by the embarrassing amount of attention that he has been given by Afaq, a satellite channel owned by his own Dawa Party, including an ad campaign which sees him emerge from a sea of destruction and misery in slow motion, against a backdrop of an Iraqi flag and to the tune of oboes and violins.
Personal anxieties are also the main motivation behind the debaathification process, which resulted in the banning of hundreds of candidates from the electoral process on the basis of dubious evidence. In a televised interview with Forat, Ahmed Al-Chalabi, who was the driving force behind the initiative, put it best: “Arab countries and others have sought to reinstate the Baath party by undermining the constitution and by taking advantage of the government’s failure to fight corruption, to reduce unemployment, to solve the housing crisis, and to distribute rations to the Iraqi people.” Chalabi and his colleagues were driven by two concerns: to improve his electoral prospects by reigniting social tension and to prevent voters from punishing the current ruling elite by simply eliminating any alternatives from the process altogether.
The focus on personalities has also inevitably led to a string of ad hominem attacks. However, because all major candidates are in fact part of the current ruling elite, most are exposed to strong counter-attacks, which explains why so many have sought to portray themselves as members of the ‘opposition’, regardless of whether or not they are part of the current government. A presenter on Forat recently launched into a soliloquy on Ayad Jamal Al-Din, an Iraqi MP who heads the Ahrar party, and who has been campaigning against corruption in the Iraqi state. “How does an individual like Ayad Jamal Al-Din get enough money to place an ad on Arab TV every few minutes?” the presenter asked. “Iraqis will understand that he has received funding from foreign nations and that he will be beholden to those same nations if he is elected.” He was apparently unperturbed by the fact that many people have asked how it is that ISCI, his employer, could have enough money to operate an entire television channel of its own, let alone place ads on other channels.
Iraq’s silent majority unrepresented
The fact is however that many Iraqi politicians make for easy targets. The State of Law Coalition, which is led by the current Prime Minister, has sought to capitalise on the improved security situation, but Iraqis remember that it was under Maliki’s tenure that the civil conflict got completely out of hand, and that it was his government that sought to protect senior officials that were accused of corruption. Jawad Al-Bolani, Iraq’s current interior minister, has also sought to capitalise on security gains, but official state documents clearly indicate that his ministry is amongst the most corrupt in the current government. The INA is led by ISCI, a party that will forever be tainted by the fact that it was formed in Tehran in 1982 under the watchful eye of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and that since 2003 it has been one of the only parties to openly call for the establishment of a sectarian governance structure in Iraq.
The INA has also been attacking Al-Maliki’s government for allowing corruption to wreck havoc in Iraq, as if they themselves weren’t in control of the Ministry of Finance as well as other key ministries. Sharqiya has launched an aggressive campaign against clerical rule, warning Iraqis not to vote for “turbans of ignorance” and asking them to “remember how they lied, and how they stole” (against a backdrop of a turbaned silhouette). Sharqiya has forgotten how several ministers made off with billions in state money when its ‘secular’ favorite, Ayad Allawi, was in power. Afaq channel has claimed that Nouri Al-Maliki’s government has been unable to stamp out corruption as a result of resistance by his rivals, forgetting that Maliki himself went the extra mile to protect his colleague and party member Faleh Al-Sudani, the former minister of trade who has been accused of massive corruption and mismanagement.
Iraqis are quick learners however and won’t be duped so easily. A young man put it succinctly the other day when he was interviewed by Sumariya TV: “I saw a poster for a candidate the other day, and his slogan read: ‘The real work starts now’. Since 2003, that guy was a minister in three separate governments. If he hasn’t been working over the past three years, what has he been doing?”
Iraqis face stark choices on 7 March and in their effort to locate a democratic, honest and competent candidate who shares their sense of social justice, they may find that they have already been defeated. A miracle may yet take place, and the post-election negotiations to form a government may unintentionally usher a genuine democrat who is capable of facing up to the current ruling elite into the Prime Minister’s office. But miracles, by definition, are calculated affairs, and the many Iraqis who have been despairing for some form of improvement over the past few years may find that they are still out of luck.
This article originally appeared, translated into German, on the website www.wp-irak.de