Tuesday, January 25, 2005

BAGHDAD — In America, voter education means learning how to work touch-screen voting machines. In Iraq, it is an ayatollah’s religious decree instructing husbands that they must allow their wives to vote in the Jan. 30 national assembly elections.

In Iraq, as elsewhere in the world, candidates court the press. But in Iraq, the courtship included handouts of $100 bills to reporters who attended a recent press conference by Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s faction.

Security is tight in any election. In Iraq, with the constant threat of the insurgency, it means that the locations of voting centers will not be revealed until the last minute.

As for the candidates, most of their identities are being kept secret, too.

The campaign leading to the elections on Sunday is exposing the country’s values and divisions.

In Iraq, that means contentious Islamic fundamentalism, appeals for tribal endorsements, nostalgia for more peaceful times and calls for a return to monarchy.

Politicians are searching for the messages that will entice a war-weary public. The insurgents, who have slain candidates and targeted election workers, clearly are seeking to derail the vote. Iraqi newspapers bristle with electoral pronouncements, promises and gossip.

Polls and casual conversations indicate that most Iraqis want to vote, even though many have safety concerns.

A newspaper advertisement from Iraq’s electoral commission urges people to walk to the voting places because car traffic will be forbidden, a measure prompted by a wave of car bombings amounting to about a blast a day since early September.

The ad also instructs that “voting will be secret and individual.” When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein held sham referendums on his presidency, heads of households or party hacks used to fill out the ballots for many.

Iraqis will not vote for individual candidates. There are 111 party lists — mostly coalitions of various parties — vying for votes for the 275-seat national assembly. Voting also will take place for regional councils, meaning that the lists will include the names of about 19,000 candidates.

Mr. Allawi leads one list and, still protected by U.S. security, he is using his office for pre-election press events. He has unveiled new cargo planes for Iraq’s air force, and announced an expansion of the army and bonuses for university workers, retirees and bureaucrats.

But mostly, he stresses that he is a strong leader. With a country reeling from terrorist attacks, Mr. Allawi and his press aides repeatedly have announced detentions of figures they say are involved in attacks.

A rival candidate, quoted in a newspaper, said Mr. Allawi used police to distribute campaign literature and that security forces broke the arm of an activist from a competing party.

At a recent press conference attended mainly by the Arab press, Mr. Allawi’s party — without the prime minister present — offered apologies that no lunch had been served. Steven Negus, a reporter for the Financial Times of London, was present as Mr. Allawi’s campaign aides handed each reporter an envelope with a $100 bill enclosed. Mr. Negus declined, but many others took the money.

The newspaper al-Iraq al-Jadeed, which carries extensive coverage of the Shi’ite clergy, reported that another candidate purportedly offered voters watches, pens and oil heaters. The paper said some recipients demanded that the candidate provide them with oil, as well.

Campaigning has gone underground for many candidates in Baghdad because of the constant threat of assassination and bombings. But candidates and their representatives have shown up at government offices, mosques and funerals to introduce themselves and their agenda.

Most of the parties and coalitions were created only recently and are not well-known by most Iraqis. Each party or alliance list of candidates will be allocated seats in the assembly proportionate to the share of the nationwide vote it wins.

Most lists have not been made public, but advisers to the electoral commission say the names will be published shortly before the election.

Hadi Saleh, a leader of the Iraqi Communist Party, was tortured and killed at his home recently. A party official, Abu Maseer, said the attackers stole documents from Mr. Saleh’s house and may have been trying to find out who was on the party’s electoral list.

The Constitutional Monarchy Movement has experienced a campaign surge lately and plans its first TV ads this week, which will show pictures of the reputedly tranquil times under the monarchy that was ousted in 1958 and compare them with images of more turbulent times under later regimes.

The party is led by Sharif Ali bin Hussein, a descendent of the royal family. The party seems to have struck a chord with older voters and is trying to appeal to tribal leaders.

Many parties promise the same things: full employment, peace, services such as electricity — still running at levels below what Saddam’s regime had produced — gasoline and water.

But one of the most contentious issues of the campaign has been the claim of blessings by the country’s Shi’ite Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. The United Iraqi Alliance, a list dominated by Shi’ite fundamentalists, has become a front-runner by invoking the revered cleric’s backing, though he has neither denied nor affirmed it.

Now other parties dispute the endorsement or, in the case of the Constitutional Monarchy Party, use his image on their posters to imply a connection.

It was Ayatollah al-Sistani who demanded that the elections be held and who told Shi’ites to participate, saying their vote “is precious as gold.” He also ordered Shi’ite men not to prevent their wives from voting.

Al-Iraq al-Jadeed quoted Shi’ite cleric Ahmed al-Sa’afi explaining that the “principled” voter will benefit from participation in the election, despite the dangers during or after.

“If something happens to him,” the cleric was quoted as saying, “he will be rewarded by God.”

New York Times News Service

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