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Iraqi Voters Getting a Taste of Retail Politics

Candidates for Provincial Seats Reach Out to Public With Posters, T-Shirts and Jingles

A wall in Baghdad's Sadr City is plastered with various candidates' campaign posters in advance of Jan. 31 provincial elections. More than 14,000 candidates are competing for 440 seats on councils in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces.
A wall in Baghdad's Sadr City is plastered with various candidates' campaign posters in advance of Jan. 31 provincial elections. More than 14,000 candidates are competing for 440 seats on councils in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. (Reuters)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 22, 2009; Page A08

BAGHDAD, Jan. 21 -- Facing a skeptical and sometimes hostile crowd, 13 candidates vying for seats on Baghdad's provincial council passed around a microphone for three hours during a town hall debate this month as voters threw out questions and challenged their answers.

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"Should the militarizing of Iraq continue?" one woman sitting in the front row wanted to know.

"How are you going to deal with run-down buildings?" a man asked. "And the housing crisis?"

"How much have you spent on your campaigns?" an Iraqi journalist demanded. "Especially the big religious parties?"

At events like this one, at a social club in Baghdad, Iraqi politicians campaigning for seats in the Jan. 31 provincial elections have promoted themselves vigorously and engaged voters on both global and grass-roots issues.

This brand of retail politics marks a dramatic shift from campaigns conducted in 2005, the last time Iraq held elections nationwide. Amid growing violence at the time, most candidates ran largely faceless campaigns under the umbrellas of established parties defined by sect and religion.

While most of the established parties remain in the game, a staggering number of new faces and coalitions are jockeying for support at a time when American influence here is waning and dissatisfaction with the Iraqi government runs deep.

More than 14,000 candidates are competing for 440 seats on provincial councils in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. Some are running as independents, but the majority belong to more than 400 political blocs, known here as lists, roughly 70 percent of which are new.

Around the country, the ubiquitous cement blast walls that in recent years have divided and protected Iraqis are wallpapered with political posters. Newspapers are packed with campaign ads. The airwaves are cluttered with campaign jingles. And candidates' photos and slogans appear on T-shirts and balloons.

In 2005, parties that got the most votes appointed members for seats. This time, an "open ballot" will allow voters to choose individual candidates within parties. "Individuals will be accountable to [voters] about what is going to happen on the ground," said Stefan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Iraq.

Hassan al-Tahan, a Shiite candidate for Baghdad's provincial council, came up with a particularly creative way to attract voters: He printed his photo on an oval-shaped blimp, much like the ones the U.S. military uses around Iraq to conduct surveillance.

Sabir al-Isawi, the head of the Baghdad provincial council, who is running for reelection, has a campaign poster with a photo of himself looking upward, juxtaposed against an image of a child drinking dirty water from a broken pipe.


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