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Independent Candidates:
In Southern Iraq, A Trend For Electing The Creative Class

Saleem al-Wazzan
In Basra, writers, journalists and other creatives are running for election. Many are independents and say they want to change the Iraqi status quo. Their critics are not so sure they can.
5.04.2018  |  Basra
At work in the Basra centre for updating the electoral rolls.
At work in the Basra centre for updating the electoral rolls.

Can independents change the political situation in Iraq? That is the question that many candidates in Basra, who don’t come from traditional political backgrounds, are asking.

Film director Fayez Nasser believes they can. “I believe that the arts and culture and knowledge are the pillars of civilization,” Nasser, who is running in the upcoming Iraqi elections in May, told NIQASH. “And they enable our progress toward a modern state. Candidates in Basra all start off by coming up with a manifesto but often their policies are similar to all the other policies.”

Some political parties have realized there is more voter appetite for secular and cultural candidates.

Additionally, the Basra-based director thinks there is a lot of corruption. Candidates pay money or promise voters they will get them jobs, he explains. “These polices make us lazy people who believe in superstitions,” he argues.  And he hopes to change this.

In Basra, there will be around 28 parties and 522 candidates competing for the province’s 25 seats in parliament, in the federal elections slated for mid-May. 

Salman al-Kassed, the president of the Basra Writers Union, is also running for office and he says his goal, if elected, will be to support local culture.

“We don’t have some of the simplest things,” he told NIQASH. “We don’t have a big hall to put on events and there is no international book fair in Basra, which is considered by many to be the capital of southern Iraq. Writers and intellectuals have no voice here and remain outside of the political process. If they do not participate more than they should not be allowed to make demands of the government, which is currently in the hands of thieves and liars.”

“Over the past 14 years the youth of the country have not had much of a role in the political process and it is time for us to play a role,” adds Uday Falah al-Hajri, a young journalist and independent candidate. “We want to reduce the roles played by larger parties and make everyone more accountable. That is why I didn’t accept any offers to join larger party lists because I know how they restrict their candidates with their own agendas.”

On the other hand, it might be hard to get very far as an independent, posits Haider al-Saad, a journalist and senior manager at a local Basra satellite TV station. That’s why, when he decided to run for office, he joined the State of Law coalition, of which the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is also a member.

Independent-minded MPs whet the general public’s attitude for change.

“My supporters didn’t like that but we are trying to change their attitudes,” al-Saad told NIQASH. “If I win, I will do my best to remain independent. I believe that depends on the extent to which a candidate believes in his own values, how many people support him and the tribe he is involved with.”

Al-Saad says that during his media career, he’s seen plenty of authority figures who don’t appear to be very good managers. He thinks he would do better and won’t shy away from confrontation, just as he has not shied away from it as a journalist.

So could candidates like al-Kassed, al-Saad and Nasser have any genuine impact on politics? Local activist Abbas al-Jourani isn’t so sure. “When we look at the fate of the independents who took part in previous elections, it doesn’t look so encouraging,” al-Jourani says. “Some successful journalists and media people who ran for a seat didn’t end up doing anything meaningful in parliament and have also lost their roles in the media. When one of these – Mohammed al-Tai – stopped being obedient to his party, he was expelled from parliament.”

Al-Jourani adds that some political parties that are based on sectarian or religious platforms have realized there is more voter appetite for secular and cultural candidates. He worries that those parties are only adding these independent-minded candidates to their lists to get votes but will side-line them after they have won the elections. He also worries that some independents may be seduced by the power that comes with a parliamentary position.

Then again, al-Jourani adds, independents must be able to run and to represent their followers, come what may. And there is also the argument that more independent-minded MPs paved the way for those who are coming now and that they whet the general public’s attitude for change, even if they did not achieve anything concrete while in power. 

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