Iraqis Grasp the Art of TV Debate, With Gloves On

Times Staff Writer

For the first time, the televised campaign debate has come to Iraq, and it has brought with it a level of civility and political discourse far different from that found on the nation’s often bloody streets.

Across Iraq, politicians of all stripes moved with fear as they campaigned for Thursday’s parliamentary election. On Tuesday, a Sunni Arab candidate was slain in Ramadi, the fourth office-seeker to be assassinated in recent weeks.

But in Iraqi TV studios, it’s a different story.

Politicians are now free to use the medium of televised debates to expose voters to their styles, images and rhetorical flourishes. And here, the tone has been polite.


There have been few interruptions and fewer insults. In a country where eloquence is admired, canned sound bites have been rare.

“One and a half minutes is too short to answer the question,” explained a Sunni Muslim Arab candidate during a debate among aspirants to the national assembly broadcast this week on the U.S.-funded Al Hurra television channel. Four other politicians sat respectfully at the conference table that had been draped with yellow satin. Later in the program, one candidate briefly interrupted to help clarify an opponent’s point.

Back in the days of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi voters had one choice on their ballot. Now, with more than 7,600 candidates on various political slates vying for 275 four-year seats on the Council of Representatives, voters are spoiled for choice. Every night in recent weeks, debates featuring Shiite Muslim, Sunni Arab and Kurdish candidates, with TV journalists as hosts, have been broadcast across Iraq from studios in Baghdad.

American officials, who say they are eager to develop democracy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, see the forums as evidence of growing political awareness and the development of a vibrant public sphere that can reach viewers across the entire region.

They also see the televised forums as one of the few ways for Iraqis to sort out the political slates and their myriad candidates.

“It’s difficult for the average Iraqi to know the difference among all of these parties,” a Western official in Baghdad said.


Raad Mandalawi, a seller of used clothes in Basra, compares the debates with those in U.S. presidential campaigns he has watched. He saw Ronald Reagan flash his telegenic smile in 1980. He watched President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry spar last year.

“The most ugly thing,” he said, referring to the Iraqi debates, “is the lying.”

Unlike in America, Iraqi TV political debates are not aired live, are not heavily advertised beforehand and often feature more than two candidates -- who, in maybe the most vivid contrast with the United States, take to the stage sans makeup.

Because there is no TV ratings system in Iraq, it’s difficult to gauge how many potential voters have been tuning in. But observers believe that the debates could play a crucial role in influencing swing voters.

“I liked the way they were talking together and debating in a democratic way without arguing,” said Mohammed Jalil, a 30-year-old student at the University of Baghdad who takes breaks during thesis writing to tune in. Earlier in the day, Jalil had caught a debate featuring Adnan Pachachi, who is running on former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s slate, and Salman Jumali, a rival Sunni, in which the pair bantered about trade policy, oil exports and diplomatic relations with Turkey.

In Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, international law professor Harith Adeeb Chalabi, 34, has watched more debates than he cares to remember. The programs have often left him depressed. Politicians talked of platonic ideals, he said, not day-to-day life in this strife-torn nation.

“The idea of broadcasting these debates -- regardless what is said -- is considered as a positive thing, developing the political awareness of the Iraqi citizen,” he said. “But the problem is that the politicians have not reached the stage of maturity in the political game.”

The debates are but one striking difference between the current election and Iraq’s first post-Hussein vote in January.


Back then, candidates campaigned in secret, fearing for their lives. Now, despite the risks, politicians are canvassing the country, repeating slogans and shaking hands with the electorate.

Still, though the debates have offered a forum for political slates to differentiate themselves, there has not been a single high-profile faceoff among the candidates considered contenders for prime minister, who will be selected by the new parliament. “A lot of Iraqis would like to see Jafari take on Talabani or Talabani take on Hakim,” a Western official in Baghdad said, referring to transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, President Jalal Talabani and Abdelaziz Hakim, the leader of the dominant Shiite political bloc.

Iraqi politicians rarely display the baby-kissing and glad-handing that American audiences are used to. And on TV, the candidates have spent their time discussing issues rather than emoting, “relating” or getting into their personal lives.

At the same time, their media advisors have begun picking up some American flourishes, such as helping out with fashion choices. Such packaging of politicians has not gone unnoticed by viewers.

“Elegance suddenly showed up during elections,” said Hafidh Maroof, a 45-year-old Shiite who owns a lighting fixture shop in Baghdad.

“Even Sadr candidates are wearing neckties,” he added, referring to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose followers are more accustomed to dressing in militia gear.


Maroof, for one, has been moved to tune in to televised debates despite being skeptical about the political process. Candidates promise much, he said, but deliver little.

“We see it all over the world,” Maroof said. “In the USA, we saw Bush before the elections going to the streets and hand-shaking people. But as soon as he got the post, we never saw him doing that again.”

Jalil, the college student, is also unsure whether the rhetoric and promises of the debates will last beyond Thursday’s vote.

“I can’t tell,” he said. “But it sure makes me feel it’s a good step towards democracy.”


Times staff writers Shamil Aziz, Saif Rasheed and Asmaa Waguih in Baghdad and special correspondents in Basra and Mosul contributed to this report.