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They Don’t Need Another Hero:
No Election Front Runners In Basra

Ahmad Waheed
Two words sum up the electorate in the southern Iraqi province of Basra: Divided and undecided. It’s an unusual situation in an often-politically-cohesive province.
3.05.2018  |  Basra
Voter registration underway in Basra. (photo: 					)
Voter registration underway in Basra. (photo: )

Voter attitudes in Basra reflect what is happening in the political bloc that usually represents the interests of the people living there. The key words are: divided and undecided. There is no clear front runner here, despite what the candidates may think.

Previously voters in this Shiite Muslim-majority area would always vote for Shiite Muslim politicians. These tended to stick together as well, once in parliament. In the past this meant that Basra voters had the choice of three different Shiite Muslim groups. This year however there are five. 

And they all have an equal chance of getting into power, suggests Salim Saad, a spokesperson for Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission in Basra; the organisation, known as IHEC, is responsible for overseeing the country’s elections.

There are also those who are campaigning to boycott the elections, saying that there is no hope for any new blood on the political scene and that the elections are being held under unfair conditions. 

“In previous elections, we noticed that people tended to gravitate towards the prime minister’s list,” Saad said. “It is usually the biggest list and the first to announce representatives. But this is not the case this time.”

Usually Iraq’s Shiite Muslim prime minister is the most popular individual on the ballot. However the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has a very different style to past leaders – he doesn’t threaten or hold fiery speeches or come across as the country’s “strong man”, the way many Iraqis seem to like their leaders.

The different alliances competing in Baghdad have tied themselves to different prominent individuals in Basra. The political group led by al-Abadi features the country’s oil minister, Jabbar al-Luaibi and Basra’s governor, Asad al-Eidani.  

A competing group headed by former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, boasts Basra’s former governor and current MP, Khalaf Abdul Samad, and the country’s transport minister, Kazem Finjan al-Hamami, who was a well-known sea captain in Basra before taking on the ministerial portfolio.

The alliance that is made up of members of the Shiite Muslim militias, who became hometown heroes by fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State, is fielding the likes of politician-cum-fighter Faleh al-Khazali and MP Uday Awad, a defector from the popular Sadrist movement.

Meanwhile the Saeroun alliance, a new group that features members of the Sadrist movement as well as the likes of the Iraqi Communist party, is trying to put up new faces. This is in keeping with a recent edict issued by the office of the country’s highest Shiite religious authority, Ali al-Sistani, who said something along the lines of,” the tried should not be tried”. Basically he was urging voters to choose a new face rather than stick with the status quo.

Many of the alliances declare they are the ones who will do the people’s will, says Ahmad Akeel, who heads an independent election monitoring centre in Basra. “Each politician presents themselves as the hero of the moment but in fact, there is no hero – not even among those who would normally be the leaders in this electoral race,” Akeel notes.

The divisions among Shiite Muslims are mirrored by another division - between politicians presenting themselves as secular and those presenting themselves as Islamic. Basra voters don’t usually choose between Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim politicians – they usually stick with the Shiites – so this is an increasingly important distinction in a homogenous voting area. 

Another thing that makes it almost impossible to work out who might win in Basra is the level of apathy among voters. There are even those who are campaigning to boycott the elections, saying that there is no hope for any new blood on the political scene and that the elections are being held under unfair conditions. A boycott would send a message to international observers about this, the unhappy non-voters argue.

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