BASRA, Iraq (AP) – Flashing under the garish lights of a hotel ballroom in southern Iraq, Wael Makhsusi made his case before a young audience.
Microphone in hand, the engineer in his thirties was on stage in Basra with other novice candidates in Sunday’s legislative elections. Among them were independents and candidates from the protests that filled the streets two years ago with protesters angry over high unemployment, government corruption and the lack of basic services like electricity and electricity. water.
If elected, Makhsusi told the crowd, he would fight tirelessly for their rights, but a bespectacled man who stood up did not believe it. “You painted a dream so rosy for us, but I’m not convinced I should vote for you,” the man said as the crowd erupted into applause.
Last month’s scene highlighted the difficulties the candidates face: they are telling disillusioned Iraqi youth, the country’s largest demographic group, to trust an electoral process that in the past has been tainted with falsification and of fraud. But apathy and mistrust are rampant, and some of the same pro-reform activists whose protests in 2019 led to the vote are now calling for a boycott of the ballot box after a series of targeted assassinations.
“The election will not be perfect,” admitted candidate Noureddine Nassar in Basra, but added that even if it only improved by a third compared to the past, it will be “better than the current system. “.
Activists like Nassar are pinning their hopes on a redesigned electoral district map – a concession to reformers – and arguing that voting is the only way to change.
“We have a new generation, born after 2001, who have the right to vote now,” said Awatef Rasheed, an independent candidate in Basra. “I’m counting on this generation.
The increase in the number of constituencies allows better local representation and gives independents more chances to win. In addition, 70% of registered voters will use biometric cards, eliminating the multiple voting that plagued the 2018 election.
The poll saw a turnout of just 44% of eligible voters – a record since the US-led invasion that dominated Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
The changes to the electoral law did not respond to protesters’ demands. Activists wanted more smaller districts, but after 11 months of talks, lawmakers agreed on 83, up from 18. Lines were drawn to facilitate a 25% participation quota for women for 329 seats in the election. parliament.
Smaller districts also favor powerful local tribes and religious figures, and traditional parties have already formed alliances with them.
Yet the new law has paved the way for the emergence of protest parties, such as the Imtidad movement, which is expected to do well in the southern province of Nasiriyah, a flashpoint for protests. One of its candidates is Makhsusi, who says he wants to undermine the political establishment in place.
But it has also helped better-funded and more experienced traditional popular parties, such as the Sadrist Movement of populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party won the most seats in 2018. Its members are already expecting a favorable outcome. .
“The Sadrist movement will get a lot of voters because we have our people all over the city of Basra,” said Mohammed al-Tamimi, a Sadrist official and vice-governor of Basra.
Their calculations are based on the assumption that people like Wissam Adnan will not vote. He is the founder of Jobs in Basra, a social media platform created to help the city’s unemployed.
“None of them made changes for the people, so why should we vote for them? Adnan said of those in power. This is popular opinion in Basra, which, despite its oil wealth, is plagued by poverty, unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure that provides dirty tap water and chronic power outages.
“Given the lack of credible alternatives and the widespread feeling among Iraqis that the system is immune to internal reform, the choice not to vote may be the only way a voter can express rejection of the system. status quo, “said Randa Slim, of the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
More than 600 people died in the October 2019 mass protests, known in Arabic as the Tishreen Revolution for the month they took place. Security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the crowd.
The protests fell silent after a few months due to the brutal crackdown and the coronavirus pandemic. But since then, 35 people have been killed in targeted assassinations of activists, protest organizers and independent candidates, creating a climate of fear and intimidation. Another 82 people were injured in assassination attempts many suspect were carried out by militias, according to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission.
Calls for a boycott of the elections have resounded in particular after the assassination in Karbala this summer of prominent activist Ehab al-Wazni. There have been vocal demands for serious efforts to bring guns under state control – a tall order in a country awash with militias and guns.
Among the groups seeking to consolidate their political dominance through elections are hardline Shiite militias backed by Iran.
The United Nations is setting up a rare monitoring mission that many hope will increase turnout, and the Iraqi Election Commission is working to correct systemic loopholes exploited by elites. But some parties resort to well-worn tactics of buying votes with favors, jobs and money.
Ali Hussein, a young religious scholar who presents himself as independent, admitted he didn’t know how to get people to vote for him.
“I was shocked by people’s requests, asking for roads, for electricity. Some candidates give people food to vote, or take their personal information and say, “I’ll hire you if you vote for me,” he said. “It has created confusion about what our homework is supposed to be and we don’t know how to talk to people.”
In the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, women were promised new abayas – loose dresses worn by many Iraqis – to vote for a specific candidate. In Basra’s Zubair neighborhood, a party helps locals sort through paperwork. Others said the militias offered to protect their communities if they voted for their party.
With such tactics emerging long before election day, few people trust UN poll watchers.
For months, the UN has provided technical assistance to the Iraqi Election Commission to fill loopholes exploited by parties. According to three UN officials, a key condition was that the ballots were not moved before an initial count at individual polling stations, thereby eliminating the risk of manipulation.
Returning to the Basra rally, a grim mood settled in the audience as Ali Abdel Hussein al-Eidani told candidates his son was killed during the protests.
“Do you want to avenge him? the old man asked, tears in his eyes.
The moderator, activist Ahmed Yaseri, stepped in to reignite the discussion on increasing voter turnout.
“We want to see the future. We don’t want more blood, ”he said.