Less than two weeks before the Jan. 30 vote, Iraqis’ frustration is rising as they prepare for the most important election of their lives amid a climate of fear, insecurity and scant information.
There have been no public debates or voter fact booklets to help citizens wade through the 111 slates offering candidates for a transitional national assembly, which will write the country’s constitution. Iraqis still don’t know where they will vote, what the ballots will look like or, because of assassination fears, the names of 7,400 candidates.
“How can we vote for people when we don’t even know their names yet?” asked Heider Khalid, 21, a mathematics student at Baghdad University. “This is such a critical vote. We don’t know nearly enough.”
On Baghdad’s busiest shopping street, laborer Abdallah Jasim scanned the hundreds of campaign posters vying for his attention. Slapped on fences, light poles and anything else that will stand still long enough, colorful banners spout slogans of unity and one-word platforms such as “Security,” “Peace” or, in a sign of ongoing infrastructure problems, “Electricity.”
It’s a jumble of unfamiliar coalition names, symbols and three-digit numbers urging voters to remember a particular slate when they open their ballots on election day. Iraqis will select a single slate of ranked candidates, who will be allotted assembly seats based on how many votes the slate gets.
For Jasim, who hasn’t decided which slate to support, the blizzard of posters and platitudes is of little help.
“We don’t know who these people are,” he said. “The posters offer nothing. We don’t know what numbers represent which parties. There’s a long list of promises, but who knows if they will keep them or not?”
In the absence of facts or aggressive campaigning, electoral experts predict that Iraqis will have little choice but to revert to religious affiliation or ethnicity when making a decision. Shiite Muslims will vote for Shiites, Kurds for Kurds. Members of Islam’s Sunni branch, if they vote at all, will seek out a Sunni slate.
U.S. and Iraqi officials had long hoped to shift Iraq away from such sectarianism, fearing that long-simmering animosities would ignite a civil war. But so far, most slates have been unable or unwilling to communicate their positions beyond the religious or ethnic makeup of their candidates.
“Whenever there’s a lack of information about the people and the parties, voters turn to the next-best thing, which is: ‘This is somebody like me,’ ” said an election official with a nongovernmental organization in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “As much as Iraqis talk about unity, they still feel very strongly about who they are.”
U.S. officials acknowledge that the campaign so far remains largely superficial.
“It’s all apple pie and motherhood, and it sounds wonderful,” said a senior U.S. Embassy official in Baghdad, who also requested anonymity. “One would like to have more campaigning and better information.”
But given Iraq’s security challenges, weak media and the population’s lack of experience with elections, he said, the current campaign is probably the best that can be achieved.
“I suspect a lot of Iraqis will know enough to feel they can make a choice,” he added. “I don’t think it’s a totally blind thing. It’s less adequate than one might desire. But it’s certainly more than they had before.”
A slate led by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a Shiite who fought Saddam Hussein with backing from the CIA, has launched one of the most aggressive campaigns. Allawi is running television and newspaper advertisements, touting his experience and promising “strong leadership.” Last month he vowed that candidates on his slate would campaign proudly and openly. "[The insurgents] are masked,” he said. “We cannot be masked.”
But his team, like nearly every other, has refused to publish its candidates’ names. Electoral officials say the names will be released a few days before Jan. 30 or perhaps on election day.
The leading Shiite slate, called the United Iraqi Alliance, has based its campaign on one image: a picture of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the popular cleric who helped select the slate’s candidates. “There’s not much more to say,” said Saad Jawad, an official working on the slate.
The bewildering array of vague, similar-sounding slate names is enough to confuse even experienced voters. There’s the National Democratic Alliance, the National Democratic Union, the National United Coalition, the United Democratic Gathering and the United National Federal List, just to name a few.
In addition to confusion over how such lists differ politically, there’s been almost no information about who is funding them.
There’s speculation that firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr supports candidates on more than one list, but officially his office insists that he is boycotting the election. Iran and Syrian intelligence are said to be backing some lists, though no evidence has emerged to bolster such claims.
Women must make up one-fourth of the candidate lists, but little is known about the majority of females in the running. One slate has mounted an anti-American campaign even though its backers arrived in Iraq with U.S. troops.
“We are trying to shed light on some of the more shadowy slates, but this is a problem for both voters and the media,” said Abdul Zahra Zaki, editor of Al Mada newspaper.
Zaki has assigned five reporters to cover the vote and devoted full pages and special sections to various campaigns so they can introduce themselves to readers.
But even his reporters have been unable to identify all the candidates and backers of the leading slates. It’s easy to see why voters are tempted to rely on ethnicity or personal contacts to navigate the field.
Baghdad resident Ashur Sliwa, a 22-year-old Christian, has tried to keep abreast of the various lists but acknowledged that he had learned little about their goals or platforms. So he was leaning toward voting for one of the Assyrian Christian slates.
“This is an opportunity for me to do something so my people can be represented in the government,” Sliwa said.
Special correspondents Saif Rasheed and Zainab Hussein contributed to this report.