BAGHDAD, Iraq – Voters in Iraq are witnessing a campaign for Sunday’s vote as pitched and pronounced as anywhere in the world. Parties and coalitions make promises. Candidates appeal to people’s sense of nationalism, and to their religion. Voters’ fears are exploited, and members of the most prominent electoral lists sling veiled criticism at one another.
But this campaign is on television, not in the streets.
In an election in which few candidates’ names are known, few issues are debated in depth and many voters are too frightened to cast their ballots, television has emerged as the most effective way to communicate. In fact, in the battle for hearts and minds, the medium is more than the message; it’s essentially the campaign.
“We don’t have the means to do anything else – not rallies, not even billboards … because they were torn down by the other side,” said Adnan Janabi, campaign manager for the Iraqiya coalition of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. “So we are using the media. We are using television as the medium of choice.”
On pan-Arab stations like al-Arabiya and the nominally independent Iraqi station Iraqiya, virtually entire blocks of commercials have been given over to the advertisements, many of them slick, emotionally charged appeals to get out the vote. They are complemented by a plethora of partisan ads of varying professional quality, whose sponsors range from Allawi’s surging campaign to the tiny and distinctly uphill struggle of the Arab Democratic Front, which is courting the country’s disenchanted Sunni Arab minority.
The ads are one facet of what has proved so remarkable and so difficult about Iraq’s election, the first in the country in half a century.
In their breadth, they are among the freest exchanges of ideas and politics ever aired in the Arab world, an unprecedented platform for dozens of parties that represent communists, monarchists, Kurds, secular nationalists and religious Shiite voices.
Then again, electricity – next to security, the biggest complaint of Baghdadis – is rarely on for more than a few hours a day. That means only those with generators, limited mainly to the well off, are witness to the full scope of the media campaign. The power problem explains in part the wall-to-wall advertising that usually occurs in the window from 7 to 10 p.m.
“Despite the blackouts, we are making enough coverage for what we call saturation,” Janabi said. “Whenever electricity is on, some Iraqis will see our name.”
The longest-running and often most professional ads are nonpartisan appeals to vote, many sponsored by non-governmental groups and the Iraqi Electoral Commission.
One of the newest ads plays specifically to the Sunni Arab minority, a group U.S. officials acknowledge is unlikely to turn out in great numbers, either because of intimidation or rejection of a process seen as engineered by the United States. Even some Shiite officials acknowledge that the lack of Sunni participation poses the greatest threat to the election’s success. Without it, the results will be vulnerable to charges of being unrepresentative and illegitimate, possibly intensifying Iraq’s sectarian divide.
In the Sunni ad, two men play backgammon near young children, Omar and Khalid, traditionally Sunni names. One man is trying to persuade the other to vote:
“We should not let the insurgents or the terrorists stop us, because our votes are important to build a new Iraq,” he pleads. “Change your mind and join the election.” It ends with the slogan, “Your love of Iraq is your vote.”
The National Democratic Institute, a democracy-building group based in Washington, has offered political parties access to a three-person media center. It has helped produce spots for 12 parties and provided expertise to eight others. Given the novelty of election ads in Iraq, the training is, at times, basic: the importance of body language, what to do with your hands, how to emphasize no more than three points.
“Some politicians are brand new to this,” said an institute official who asked not to be named for security concerns. “It’s scary to walk into bright lights and cameras.”
The goal: “How not to look like you’ve been taken hostage,” the official said.
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