“Comrade, come in,” the man said, ushering a visitor into the lobby of Iraqi Communist Party headquarters.
Across the busy intersection, a banner stretched across a newly renovated building promised the imminent opening of American fast-food restaurants, including “Kentacky Fried Chicken.” Throughout the capital, portraits of Imam Hussein were omnipresent, reminders of a Shiite Muslim pilgrimage commemorating his death in AD 680.
In a nation where religious parties dominate and many people dream of a wealthy life in the West, it’s not easy being a Communist. But that doesn’t seem to worry the enthusiastic comrades buzzing about the party’s sprawling four-story headquarters.
After decades on the sidelines or behind bars, they are banking on disenchantment with the religious parties now in power, and a wariness of freewheeling Western capitalism, to lift their fortunes in provincial elections Saturday.
“In the past five years, the people have begun to understand that these political parties failed to achieve what people were hoping for,” said Abdul Munim Jabber Hadi, wearing a blood-red tie and gray suit as he prepared to go out campaigning Sunday.
Hadi is one of 27 Communist Party candidates vying for seats on Baghdad’s 57-member provincial council. He is not expecting most of his fellow Communists to prove victorious.
The party won two seats on the council four years ago in the last provincial elections, and the 275-member national parliament has two Communists. So it will take time to build power, explained Hadi, an exuberant man with a thick gray mustache.
“We’re in the process of building the new Iraqi state,” he continued, as he sipped tea and waited for his volunteer pamphleteers to show up. Across the room, a white-haired man was discussing his years in the former Czechoslovakia and opining about President Obama’s plans for repairing the U.S. economy.
Conversations laced with reminiscences are common among party members, many of whom spent years in exile or prison under a succession of repressive Iraqi regimes.
Mohammed Jassim Labban, a member of the party’s Central Committee, was studying social sciences in Moscow when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. “It was very hurtful,” he said, grimacing at the memory of statues of Lenin being yanked down.
Hadi, once a professional soccer player, spent four years in prison on charges of trying to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. He speaks proudly of his mother, who urged him to stick to his principles, even if it meant death by hanging. “That’s my mother,” he said with a chuckle. “She was a strong believer.”
Both blame the collapse of the Soviet empire on an overly rigid interpretation of socialist ideas.
“We believe that Marxist theories are not sacred. Nothing is sacred in politics,” said Labban, insisting that Iraq’s Communists would not force people into collective farming or impose state control over the economy.
Just what they would do if they gained power remains vague. Like most of the parties fielding candidates -- about 14,500 people are running -- the Communists speak of improving electrical service, creating jobs, ending corruption and wiping out sectarianism, without saying how they would accomplish their goals.
Labban pointed to the United States’ financial problems as proof that “wild capitalism,” as Hadi called it, is not the answer. “We’re not gloating, but we expected such a crisis, because the system was set up that way,” Labban said.
The Communists have their own economic woes. They depend on private contributions to fund their campaigns. They can’t afford TV ads, so they hit the streets to spread their message.
Hadi, who gives $20 a month to the party, goes out daily to bellow through a bullhorn that the Communists are the “party of the poor” and of “the hard-working people.”
On Sunday, he visited the Shorja market, a chaotic, mile-long strip lined by tall, crumbling apartment blocks dark with grime. As he marched down the street shouting hoarsely, volunteers wearing yellow jerseys with black lettering fluttered around like giant bumblebees. They thrust Communist Party literature at vendors and shoppers, dodging donkey-drawn carts and wooden wheelbarrows pushed by skinny young men moving tomatoes and space heaters.
To get here from the party office, Hadi hailed a taxi. His volunteers crammed into a minivan. There were no visible signs of security.
Two Communist Party politicians have been killed in the northern semiautonomous region of Kurdistan since Dec. 18. In the days before the January 2005 provincial elections, two Communist Party members in Baghdad were assassinated. But Hadi didn’t seem concerned for his safety and was brimming with energy as he barreled through the crowded market at midday. The working-class Iraqis operating the stalls are the people the Communists hope to lure away from the bigger parties.
“I’ll vote for them,” said Mehdi Abbas, a taxi driver, citing the party’s support for nationalizing the lucrative oil industry. “And the most important thing is that when these people win, we’ll get rid of the turbaned clerics,” he added with a laugh.
Jamil Hussein, a dapper engineer in a tweed overcoat, said he had supported the Communist Party in 1958 after a coup ousted the nation’s monarchy and brought hopes of social and economic reforms. “But the circumstances were stronger than our hopes,” he said.
Even now, Hussein said, he doubted the Communist Party could make a comeback against the religious forces in power.
“Its popularity is not like before,” he said.
Religious leaders agree. Ahmed Massoudi, a spokesman for the movement loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, said he doubted there was a future for the Communist Party.
“It contains good, esteemed figures, but its opportunities are limited because most Iraqis are Muslims and concerned with religious thoughts. Religion plays a major role in life here, so a party like the Communist Party has little chance to play a major role,” he said.
The Communists say it is just such attitudes that will work to their advantage. Most Iraqis prefer a secular government, Hadi said, as an old woman in a black abaya waved away a campaign flier. A man selling fresh fish accepted three fliers but then carefully placed one in each of his barrels of fish.
None of this discouraged the candidate.
“After five years, the people are at a crossroads,” he said. “They can vote for those they already elected, or they can go for the new, democratic secular powers.”