Provincial council candidate Fareeq Khazaali moves through the crowds of shoppers on Mutanabi Street with the confidence and ease of a veteran politician, shaking hands and smiling, as his children, wearing homemade campaign T-shirts, distribute leaflets.
When he’s not pressing the flesh, he’s sending frequent text messages (“Greetings. Please elect your candidate Fareeq Khazaali.”) and making friends on Facebook -- surprising political sophistication for a novice candidate in a country taking baby steps toward democracy.
As Iraq nears its provincial elections day, Jan. 31, residents are faced with ballots that could make even a seasoned voter’s head spin. In total across the country, 14,400 candidates representing 407 political entities are vying for 440 seats.
Fourteen of Iraq’s 18 provinces are holding elections, and the crowded field in some of them -- in Baghdad alone, there are more than 2,400 candidates -- is only one of the challenges facing those seeking office. They also must deal with security concerns and questionable campaign tactics of some contenders who are giving away cooking oil, blankets and cash.
As the candidates mingle with the public, they are easy targets for assassins. On Dec. 31, gunmen in the northern city of Mosul shot and killed a candidate in broad daylight while he was walking down the street. U.S. and Iraqi authorities have warned of a potential increase in violence as the elections near.
Still, many of the politicians are undeterred.
“In terms of parties and candidates, you’re not going to see a lot of phone calling and phone banking,” said Erin Mathews, director of Iraq programs for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, which is holding workshops for nearly 800 Iraqi candidates. “More of the parties are doing things like pamphlets, door hangers and door-to-door campaigning, which sounds tremendously impossible in Iraq, but it’s not.”
Candidate Abdul Aboodi is handing out a written “receipt of guarantee” in the city of Najaf, a “guarantee in front of God that I promise to be obliged to change the reality and . . . to be honest and to follow up all issues in the provincial council.”
Khazaali, a Shiite Muslim on the secular Iraqi Nation Party slate, walked along Mutanabi Street, famous for its booksellers and site of a 2007 suicide bombing that left 30 dead, while several armed guards stood in the distance.
After shaking Khazaali’s hand, Mohammed Saleh Faiz, 33, said, “I respect the way this candidate is campaigning. He is now living among the people. They can ask him about himself or his political program. We rarely see such frankness and transparency among the politicians.”
Khazaali, 45, has also mobilized young people. Many on his campaign team are enthusiastic university students or recent graduates. They’ve taken his message door to door and have “no fear like old men,” he said.
“We as politicians get many threats from other parties,” Khazaali said. “And we’ve been saved from some assassination attempts, but this soul is given by God and it is taken by God.”
To get elected, Khazaali says, he must distinguish himself from other candidates. That is why he’s using text messages and Facebook -- tips he learned from candidate training with the National Democratic Institute, a nongovernmental organization.
“This is different from most other candidates,” Khazaali said. “For most of them, use of the Internet is very weak.”
Kurdish Alliance provincial council candidate Alaa Arkwazy is also using Facebook. She wrote on her page: “My slate number is 439 and serial number is 3. I need 25,000. . . . You know my devotion to my country and my love to my city Baghdad, the capital. Tell those who are really devoted.”
Like Khazaali, Arkwazy is taking her message outdoors: to schools and even into more traditionally dangerous neighborhoods such as Shiite-dominated Sadr City. “When you talk to any person face to face, you gain more trust,” she said.
Unlike some candidates, Arkwazy said she doesn’t have much of a war chest. She’ll spend less than $1,000 of her teacher’s salary on posters and on the cooking supplies for homemade desserts she passed out during the holidays.
“The other parties have a budget,” she said. “They are providing household necessities like cooking oil, blankets and pillows.”
Khazaali has encountered similar challenges: “Some people ask me, ‘The other candidates gave us gifts. Why don’t you give us something?’ I tell them it is because I am not a thief.”
Election law prohibits handing out gifts in exchange for votes, although the practice appears commonplace.
Several candidates have complained that their posters, plastered on concrete blast walls across the capital, have been ripped down or defaced.
“We are at the beginning of the right way toward democracy,” said Judge Qasim Aboodi, chief of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission. “This process needs accumulated experiences to reach the scientific methods for campaigning. This doesn’t come overnight. . . . What is happening now is expected. We expect some mistakes and violations.”
In Babil province, south of Baghdad, a 20-year-old man in Hillah said he was hired for about $870 and given a white Nissan pickup truck to hand out blankets and heaters to encourage people in rural villages to vote for a specific slate.
“I’m a young man. I’m not employed, not married,” he said. “People told me if this guy won, he will employ you, give you money and a house and marry you to someone. . . . I don’t believe he’s going to help me. As soon as he wins the election, he will forget us. But he gave me money and a car, and they said, even if he doesn’t win, I can keep the car.”
Over the last few weeks, he has passed out 200 blankets, 200 heaters and 100 $10 calling cards. He was also given about $1,700 to distribute in $20 payments to registered voters who pledge their support.
Abu Ali, a 29-year-old lawyer in Hillah, said one of the major slates offered him cash, saying that its candidates face stiff competition in a field of 1,300 hopefuls for the provincial council. Representatives for the slate said they would give him $1,700 if he recruited 200 voters, but Abu Ali refused it.
Politicians, he said, “shouldn’t ascend by such methods. It should be decided at the polls.”