The frenzied electoral publicity campaigns in Najaf have taken a new course in the wake of new laws that limit electoral advertising to specially built billboards and electricity poles. The walls of houses and
New posters aim at a friendlier, 'family' style, with candidates appealing to their audience using local language and more modest imagery.
'Elect your son', reads one. 'Elect your daughter' another. 'Vote for Najaf's devoted son' is another appeal.
"People no longer buy these cheap words," says Dr. Baqir Al-Karbasi, an Arab language professor, who follows the electoral scene in Najaf. "A candidate's genuine credibility is now the benchmark."
Some candidates, however, believe these expressions tend to create a more intimate relationship with the respective candidate.
"Most of the voters belong to simple and underprivileged groups. What is important is that this appealing language should be accompanied by genuine programs that save the country from the calamities of the present day, and achieve equitable power sharing," says Saad Abdul Amir Duaibil, a candidate from the Ahrar- Liberal list, led by Eyad Jamaludin.
The vast majority of Najaf's candidates' advertisements focus on similar issues, which, observers believe, have made the slogans less attractive. They talk about electricity, water, education, prosperity, eliminating sectarian-based competition, reducing unemployment, equitable sharing of the country's resources. They criticise the current government, accuse opponents of corruption.
"Yes, candidates' agendas are similar, because the problems have been already identified," says Dr. Mohammad al-Hasnawi, an Iraq National Coalition candidate. "Therefore, I think we should start with building bridges of confidence between citizens and officials."
Dr. Al-Hasnawi believes that opening an office for each representative at the city in which they have launched their candidacy will contribute to bridging the gap between people and government. This, he adds, "will accelerate the process of changing declared political programs into concrete achievements."
Talal Bilal, a State of Law Coalition candidate, believes, however, that the new trends in this election should not be limited to the candidates' propagandistic campaigns and their respective programs. The focus should also be on their personalities.
"The availability of independent and strong candidates is sufficient to achieve the declared agenda," he argues. "Therefore, the real challenge today is to implement the electoral program, not so much the actual program itself. The appointment of independent officials and directors at the security departments and offices will restore confidence between citizens and government." Mr. Bilal stressed.
Posters and banners have been busy highlighting the candidates' academic achievements, trying to show that their BSc or MA makes them more likely to be able to implement the promised programs. Special emphasis has been placed on those candidates holding the title 'Doctor'. This introduction of highly educated candidates is taking place at a province where 74% of its population range between complete illiteracy and elementary school education, and an average monthly pay per family of about US$360, based on the figures released by the Iraqi Ministry of Planning and the UN.
Parties hope their educated candidates will seem more convincing but Dr. Touman Ghazi, a university professor who is NOT running for election, believes even Najaf's poorly educated population will be able to see through this.
"A Doctorate title today is not a decisive factor for winning the hearts of Iraqi voters, who are more persistent on a candidate's ability to secure their basic daily needs, irrespective of the degrees they hold," he says.
Meanwhile, candidate Dr. Mohammad Al-Hasnawi argues that the increased number of Doctorate holders among the candidates is an indicator of a sound political system.
“The parties are more aware than ever before of the significance of technocrats for the upcoming stage.”
He also believes this phenomenon does not impact the popularity of the religious parties, and that “our religion does not clash with science.”
Candidate Samad Saheb, from the Popular Unity list under the Iraqi Communist Party, thinks the experiences of the Iraqi people in recent years is responsible for the focus on technocratic, secular, academic qualifications.
“The past failures have kept them away from the religious parties, and stimulated them to look for confidence in secular and leftist parties. The change will not be total, because of the reemergence of sectarian tendencies immediately before the start of the electoral campaign but it will certainly be clear,” he says.
The arrival of the Kurdish Alliance list in Najaf is seen as a major development in the approaching elections.
"The list comprises Arab men and women who have decided to join the Kurdistan Alliance list," says Fakhruddin Mohammad Amin Ali from the Kurdish Alliance list. The winner out of the eight candidates of this list will seek to transfer the Iraq Kurdistan experiment of construction and federalism to this city.
Civil activist Maysam Al-Adib the Kurdistan Alliance list's presence in the governorate as a major positive development for Iraq.
“It reflects positive progress at the country’s national level. We aspire to reaching a point when all parties will shake off their sectarian and ethnic tendencies and carry out their work far from any constraints, anywhere on Iraq's soil.”
The final number of candidates who are running for the 12 seats in Najaf is still unknown but should be around 250. The numbers have decreased, however, and Bushra Al-Zamily, the Najaf Commission Office Director, says this decrease is likely to continue through to the election itself, even into the counting process.
"Different government authorities continue to vet and verify the candidacies of a number of those running. Their documents and legal and political backgrounds must still be checked," she revealed. Despite the confusion caused by postponement, law changes and changes in vetting instructions, which negatively affected her Commission's work, al-Zamily is still confident the body can accomplish its mission.
Some political groups, however, believe the Commission to be working too closely with the United Nations Assistance Team, which they believe to be trying to influence the commission's work. A statement released by the Office of Imam Al-Sadr, said the Commission is facing "unnecessary pressures by the head of the UN-assigned assisting team."
The purpose of such pressures, it indicated, was "to issue decisions that serve the interest of certain political groups." These groups or the type of these decisions were not specified in the statement, however.
al-Zamily rejects out of hand the claim that her office faces any pressures whatsoever, from any group.
"We have an excellent coordination and cooperative relationship with the UN team in Najaf," she said, continuing to praise the high level of cooperation offered by the governorate candidates with the Commission and its work. This, she emphasised, is considered “a qualitative leap compared to past years experiences."