Improved security allowed would-be politicians to campaign without fear in Mosul.
It was impossible for the taxi driver to make the turn. A huge election campaign poster was hanging in the way. He ducked his head to try and look underneath it and had to wait a bit longer before he was sure the street was clear of oncoming traffic. Only then did he make the turn.
“When is this chaos going to end?” he sighed, exasperated. “We are suffocating, we see nothing but posters!”
In Mosul, roundabouts, walls, street lights and power poles are covered in campaign materials and all of the city’s halls are booked for conferences and meetings. It is the first time in several elections that campaigning has been this vigorous in the province of Ninawa, of which Mosul is the capital.
There are still corpses of both civilians and fighters. The smell is terrible. But candidates still hang their pictures on the walls.
There are 921 candidates competing in the election here, vying for the 34 seats allocated to the area in Baghdad’s parliament. And that number of candidates is more than double the number who competed in the 2014 elections.
This is in large part due to the more stable security situation in Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city. Since the extremist group known as the Islamic State, who controlled the city for three years, was pushed out of the area, things have been far safer here. Even before the Islamic State, or IS, group held sway here, their forerunners, Al Qaeda, were here in force and made life precarious for local politicians and security forces.
“Four years ago, if you ran in the elections, it was suicidal,” says one candidate Wajeeh Mohammed, whose house was raided by armed assailants in 2013 when he was nominated to run for provincial elections. Mohammed was able to escape the assassination attempt but he points out that as many as 15 other candidates were not so lucky.
But today, candidates can roam around the city just like any other citizen and many of them sit in local cafes like the Qantara Culture Café in the city’s east, holding forth apparently without any fear.
There are three main groups interacting in these elections, explains Tareq al-Taei, a political science lecturer at the University of Mosul. These are the local tribal groups, the young people of Mosul and the elites, who held power here in the recent past. There’s a difference in age and in quality too, compared to past elections.
“Young people here have become more effective and they are taking up some big roles,” he says. “But they are not yet powerful enough to compete with the larger lists. So it’s hard for them to establish a presence.”
Having said that though, some young people have joined the major parties’ lists, he adds.
While touring the city the fact that there are more female candidates running for office in Mosul than before, also becomes obvious. According to the country’s Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, there are 255 female candidates campaigning here. This means over a quarter of all candidates in Ninawa are female, one of the highest percentages for women politicians in the recent past.
One female candidate, Hind Jassem, said she could easily travel around the city and hold campaign events, as did other politicians NIQASH spoke to.
On the western side of the city, which was devastated by the fighting against the IS group, it was a different story. There people were more resentful of the politicians.
“It’s been ten months since Mosul was liberated but there are still corpses of both civilians and fighters that have not been removed,” Zainab Saad, a 28-year-old working at a local pharmacy, told NIQASH. “The smell is terrible. But the candidates still dare to hang their pictures on the walls of this destroyed city. I feel like they are just disrespecting people’s feelings.”
Young Mosul men launched their own campaign.
Then again, she added, there is no choice but to vote in the coming election. “My family and I will vote in the hopes that there will be a change, even if it is a very small change,” she explained. “We have suffered such a lot here.”
According to IHEC, around 70 percent of the population of Ninawa – where there are more than 2 million eligible voters – have received their voting cards. However there are still major logistical problems to overcome. The IHEC has managed to open 740 polling centres and 4,300 polling stations. In Mosul’s old city there are none though because it is so damaged and locals have yet to return there in force.
In areas outside the city, such as Sinjar, IHEC has mobile polling stations. There are also an estimated 180,000 voters living in displaced persons’ camps in Dohuk, Erbil and south of Mosul. The IHEC has said these Iraqis will be able to vote, even without the official voting cards; monitors are warning of the potential for voter fraud.
The important thing is that these elections take place without any major problems, and that we see hope on a new path for Iraq.
Although it is hard to say which parties will win in Ninawa, there is no doubt there will be change in the province and in Mosul.
For one thing, the Iraqi Kurdish forces that once controlled part of Ninawa were forced to withdraw from those areas after the ill-fated Kurdish referendum on independence last October. Voters in those areas used to support the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Now those parties will have to hope that the civilians displaced from those areas and living in camps will still be keen to vote for them.
Previously Iraqi Kurdish parties had as much as one third of the votes in Ninawa- that is unlikely to happen this election.
Elsewhere in Ninawa there is fierce competition between a number of parties and political groups. Given the general disappointment in their behaviour and loss of control over the past three crisis-plagued years, it is likely that the parties that Ninawa locals traditionally supported are not going to do as well as they used to either. Osama al-Nujaifi, a leading Sunni Muslim politician and one of the country’s vice-presidents, is one of those players; his brother, Atheel al-Nujaifi, was the governor of Ninawa previously.
New political players on the Ninawa scene could benefit from all that. One of these is the list headed by the current prime minister, Shiite Muslim politician, Haider al-Abadi. Another is that headed by former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, and, possibly with less of chance in a strongly Sunni Muslim area, is the group headed by Hadi al-Ameri, that evolved out of Shiite Muslim militias that also fought the IS group.
Most likely the results will see power scattered more widely than before. But as the poster-cursing taxi driver puts it: “The important thing is that these elections take place without any major problems, and that we see hope on a new path for Iraq.”