On any morning at the moment, a tour of the southern Iraqi city of Basra on one of the local buses, feels a bit like being in a comedy, or maybe in a dream. Outside a wide variety of election posters go by. Inside, Basra locals discuss the various pictures and promises they’re seeing. Some debate the candidates’ merits seriously, others make jokes, or simply smile and ignore it all.
As the provincial elections approach – they’re to be held on April 20 – there is fierce competition among candidates here. There are 26 coalitions and more than 655 candidates competing for 35 seats on the provincial council.
Because there is no law regulating election campaigning, nor one that sets a ceiling for how much campaigns can cost, the difference between what large political parties – like the State of Law party which is headed by the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – and smaller parties are spending is significant.
“That may well be why they formed the civil and liberal alliance,” comments one bus passenger, referring to a new local alliance made up of 11 parties, including the local Communist party, secular businessmen and clerics like Hussein al-Sarkhi who oppose Iranian influence in the country. “Are they Communists, clerics or businessmen?” the passenger wonders aloud.
Plenty of the campaign posters bear pictures of unsmiling men in suits. “They look as though they’ve never had a picture taken before,” says another passenger.
The prettiest campaign posters are those belonging to female candidates. “Let’s just elect the cutest candidate so that we can be sure there are some beautiful women on the council,” one smart-aleck calls out.
One of the female candidates, Salwa Issa, who is part of the group fielded by the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, an important Shiite Muslim party, has her pictures on roads leading into Basra. "We are living in a male-dominated society,” her banners say. “But people are disappointed with the performance of provincial councils led by men. That’s why we believe people will be more likely to vote for female candidates.”
Maybe her female intuition is right, says one fellow traveller.
Some other parties here – the Sadrist movement are a good example – have made sure to add their candidates’ educational accomplishments on the bottom of their posters, so that nobody can accuse them of fielding incompetent politicians.
Meanwhile the Iraqi Prime Minister has also been keen to show his own face in Basra. He appears on many streets, together with his party members, in a photo of himself laying a foundation stone. Although it quickly made up for it by plastering posters everywhere, the State of Law bloc was late to start campaigning here – rumour has it that this was due to a disagreement between senior party members in Basra as to who should be placed first on the electoral list.
As the bus journey continues, some of the gossip that’s been doing the rounds during the election campaign in Basra is also discussed. Some say that large political blocs are requiring candidates to pay part of their salaries back to the party, if they get elected. Others say winning candidates are being told they must fill at least 80 percent of the vacant council positions with members of their own parties.
There’s also been gossip about how posters have been hung around Basra. Apparently Basra’s civil servants requested that posters not be hung on high buildings. Unsurprisingly nobody took any notice. And many of the smaller parties have been complaining that the bigger parties have taken up all the prime, high real estate with their posters.
Despite all this, a spokesperson for Basra’s electoral commission, which is tasked with overseeing the elections here, says they have had no reports of any campaign materials being vandalized.
And so the bus trip ends. Apart from being a cause of some amusement and gossip, it almost feels as though most of the city’s inhabitants don’t have a lot of interest in all of these election efforts to gain their attention. Perhaps it is because by now, they know that once the candidates win power in Iraq, all their sky-high promises will simply be forgotten.