Iraqi voters show preference for can-do over creed
An emerging backlash against rule by religious parties gives opening to technocrats in Jan. 31 provincial elections.
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Under Iraq's revamped electoral system voters will be able to vote for individuals as well as lists. Rubeiy is counting on what appears to be a nostalgic appeal for Mr. Allawi – a secular strongman who did poorly in the last national elections when religious parties swept the slate – as well as his own personal standing.Skip to next paragraph
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On Wednesday afternoon, Rubeiy's campaign "operations room" is filled with soccer players – half from his home neighborhood of Karrada and half from Sadr City – the Shiite stronghold. The movement loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is not formally fielding candidates in the elections, leaving hundreds of thousands of votes up for grabs.
"I voted last time for the Shiite list but they don't care about younger people," says Tariq Muwat, one of Rubeiy's volunteers from Sadr City. "They promised us a lot but we didn't get anything," says Mr. Murat, 35 and unemployed. He is one of hundreds of young men and women – Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians – working on Rubeiy's campaign.
Rubeiy, the son of a prominent sheikh and one of 11 brothers and three sisters from his father's four wives, turned to his brothers to help finance his campaign. So far, he says, he's spent 100 million Iraqi dinars (about $80,000). At a tribal lunch Wednesday in Zafaraniya, his aides hand out gold-plated watches and glossy brochures listing his achievements to the assembled guests.
Rubeiy's host, Sheikh Ismael al-Juhaishi, is Sunni and the guests are mixed. After three years of sectarian fighting, religion appears to have receded as an issue here – replaced by the more pressing preoccupations of electricity shortages and rampant unemployment. "People are saying for the first time they want technocrats," says a Baghdad-based diplomat. "They're fed up with religious parties who haven't been able to deliver services."
And that's what Rubeiy keeps reminding potential supporters. "I've served you for five years," he tells the rows of sheikhs fingering their prayer beads before platters of lamb and rice arrive. "There were no services here, no sewage or water."
"He's served us well," agrees Sheikh Ali Ahmed al-Bayati. "If we ask for things – like projects or help with displaced people, he gets them done."
This year, campaigning falls during the 40 days of mourning for the death of Imam Hussein and election posters compete for space with Shiite flags on buildings, concrete walls and intersections.
Even many traditional Shiite candidates are highlighting their nonreligious credentials.
"People know me for my faith and my scientific qualifications," says Tunis Farhan Aziz, a lawyer on the list of the First Martyr Sadr, named for Moqtada Sadr's uncle the Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr Sadr, executed by Saddam Hussein. "We need to build a strong economy with different facets.... We will try to fix the mistakes that happened before.
Hisham al-Suhail, deputy commissioner of the Iraqi High Electoral Commission, estimates security has improved by more than 90 percent in all provinces besides Mosul and Diyala. He says this election, the first held in a fully sovereign Iraq, will be largely free of widespread allegations of voter registration fraud in the previous vote.
"We will avoid the problems of previous elections," he says. "This election is controlled purely by Iraqi hands."