Election campaigning began officially in Iraq last Saturday. According to the authorities, 7,187 candidates from 188 parties, arranged into 27 electoral coalitions, will be competing. In Baghdad they got busy immediately. Almost overnight, the city was literally awash with posters, flyers and other election campaign paraphernalia, placed to catch the eye of voters before the May 12 elections.
Around 24 million voters in 18 provinces are eligible to cast a ballot and decide who will represent them, occupying the Iraqi parliament’s 328 seats. Around 4 million of those voters live in Baghdad alone.
Most of posters were torn down by groups of teenagers who appeared to have been motivated by certain political parties, Baghdad police say.
The posters and other material make it quite clear which parties have a lot of money to spend and which do not. Larger, well-funded parties boast larger posters in prime locations. Smaller parties must make do with smaller posters and fewer of them – they’re also making the most of social media – and unfortunately for them, many of the smaller materials were decimated by wind and rain in Baghdad on the first day of campaigning.
The election season is a good time for printing shops and metalworkers. Most posters costs between US$40 and US$100, says Saleem al-Wazzan, a print shop owner in the Sadoun area of central Baghdad.
“Business is booming,” al-Wazzan boasts. “I usually have four staff but because of the elections, I have hired six more – it’s because of the amount of work and the short time in which we have to do it.”
Al-Wazzan has the job of printing posters for three major parties in the elections. And they all have similar slogans, he says wryly. They all talk about reforming the civil state and reconstruction, he explains. “But they know these are just slogans and that as soon as the elections are over, nobody will care,” he notes.
The cost of election campaigning has already caused debate and headlines, with the public asking where all the money is coming from to make those big posters, for example. According to election rules, candidates are allowed to spend IQD250 (around US$0.21 cents) per voter. This means, in a city of 4 million, they could ostensibly spend US$1 million, if they had the money. And political parties are allowed to spend US$130 million per province.
The other scandal that arose around the posters was the fact that some pictures of candidates and posters were torn down almost as soon as they were put up, by apparently organised groups. It appeared to be a systematic campaign.
Most of the tearing down was done by groups of teenagers who appeared to have been motivated by certain political parties, Hamid Abdul-Rahim, a senior member of the Baghdad police, told NIQASH. The police have now issued orders to their officers that they should keep an eye on the posters and notify their superiors if there are further organised attempts to tear them down. “This will continue until election day,” Abdul-Rahim said.
But it’s not just organized gangs who are opposed to the posters. A number of ordinary people filmed themselves in front of certain candidates’ posters and then criticized or abused them, before loading the results onto social media.
Sometimes the posters and campaign material are posted in such a way that it does damage to the buildings or to the surroundings, adds Vian al-Sheikh Ali, the head of the Tammuz Organization for Social Development, which is supposed to be helping to monitor the elections and the campaigning.
In fact, al-Sheikh Ali adds, the politicians have already violated other rules, such as the one about when they could officially begin campaigning. They did this by posting candidates’ names on their websites and on social media before the proper date.
Relatives of dead fighters posted videos of themselves removing campaign posters and putting back the pictures of the dead.
But it’s hard to know what local authorities could do to stop any of these things from happening. In Najaf and Basra, local councils have given candidates who violated rules about the placement of posters and billboards two days to remove them.
Another headline-causing phenomenon around the election posters involves the removal of pictures and commemorative plaques featuring individuals killed in fighting against the extremist Islamic State group. These are present on most streets in Baghdad – even the ministries of defence and interior have placed pictures of deceased soldiers on their checkpoints - and many of them have been taken down, to make way for the election posters.
On Iraqi social media, the relatives of the dead fighters posted videos of themselves removing the campaign posters and putting back the pictures of their dead family members. The furore around this has led some of the political parties to announce that they won’t take any pictures of the dead down, nor will they put their politicians’ portraits over them.