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A Hard-Fought Political Campaign -- As Seen on TV

Iraqi Slates Rely Heavily on Advertising

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 29, 2005; Page A14

BAGHDAD, Jan. 28 -- In recent days, voters in Iraq have witnessed a political campaign as pitched and pronounced as any in the world. Parties and coalitions make promises. Candidates appeal to people's sense of nationalism, and to their religion. Voters' fears are exploited, and members of the most prominent electoral lists sling veiled criticism at each other.

But this campaign is on television, not in the streets.

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In Sunday's election, in which few candidates' names are known, few issues have been debated in depth and many voters are too frightened to cast their ballots, television has emerged as the most effective way to communicate. In fact, in the battle for hearts and minds, the medium is more than the message; it's essentially the campaign.

"We don't have the means to do anything else -- not rallies, not even billboards . . . because they were torn down by the other side," said Adnan Janabi, campaign manager for the Iraqiya coalition of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. "So we are using the media. We are using television as the medium of choice."

On pan-Arab stations such as al-Arabiya and the nominally independent Iraqi station Iraqiya, virtually entire blocks of commercials have been given over to the advertisements, many of them slick, emotionally charged appeals to get out the vote. They are complemented by a plethora of partisan ads of varying professional quality, whose sponsors range from Allawi's surging campaign to the tiny and distinctly uphill struggle of the Arab Democratic Front, which is courting the country's disenchanted Sunni Arab minority.

The ads are one facet of what has proved so remarkable and so difficult about Iraq's election, the first free balloting in the country in half a century.

In their breadth, they are among the freest exchanges of ideas and politics ever aired in the Arab world, an unprecedented platform for dozens of parties that represent communists, monarchists, Kurds, secular nationalists and religious Shiite voices.

Then again, electricity -- next to security the biggest source of complaint among Baghdadis -- is rarely on for more than a few hours a day. That means only those with generators -- limited mainly to the well-off -- are witness to the full scope of the media campaign. The power problem explains in part the wall-to-wall advertising that usually occurs from 7 to 10 p.m.

"Despite the blackouts, we are making enough coverage for what we call saturation," Janabi said. "Whenever electricity is on, some Iraqis will see our name."

The longest-running and often most professional ads are nonpartisan appeals to vote, many sponsored by nongovernmental groups and the Iraqi electoral commission.

In one, conversations are enacted between a man and his grandson:

"Yesterday they blew up a polling station," the grandson says.

"Chaos and terror, that's what they want," the old man answers.

"Grandfather, we are scared."


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