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.

Jane Arraf for the Monitor
Mohamed al-Rubeiy (l.) greets supporters outside his Baghdad office.
Jane Arraf for the Monitor
'PATH OF CHANGE': Iraqi businessman Mohamed al-Rubeiy credits President Obama's strategy for the Jan. 31 vote.

Mohamed al-Rubeiy, the image of a prosperous businessman in a dark blue suit and gold watch, beams from thousands of posters plastered on walls advertising his run for a seat in Iraq's provincial elections.

The liberal, middle-aged businessman is running a campaign that he says was inspired by Barack Obama – blending American-style tactics with traditional Iraqi politics – and is emblematic of what appears to be a groundswell against rule by religious parties.

"There has been a backlash," says Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister and now a member of parliament. Mr. Rubeiy is affiliated with his party. "There has been so much corruption because the religious parties got people who were not qualified to run the ministries.... It's really been a bitter disappointment in some places because they say we voted for them and they did nothing."

An Iraqi government-funded opinion poll recently found that nearly one-third of voters surveyed listed improving local services as their biggest priority. Almost half preferred secular over religious candidates.

Rubeiy is one of more than 4,400 candidates competing for 440 provincial council seats in 14 (out of 18) Iraqi provinces. The vote, with its much larger participation by Sunni parties than the last election, is expected to redraw Iraq's political map in many places and pave the way for a redistribution of power in national elections at the end of the year.

Rubeiy is counting on the religious backlash – and studying Mr. Obama's political playbook. "I was very affected by President Obama when he spoke with people in the debates," says the Romanian-educated engineer, brimming with enthusiasm. So affected, he challenged one of his rivals, the mayor of Baghdad, to debate him. Thursday's face-off, he says, was the first of its kind in Baghdad.

"Obama, in his debate, brought many people in his direction and when he talked about change ... [and] that's what I needed to start my campaign for the provincial council," says Rubeiy.

It also led to the slogan on the larger-than-life posters being unrolled by some of the 500 young volunteers at his office on a recent afternoon in Baghdad's Karrada district: "Vote for the path of change."

"I pay from my pocket – I don't put money in my pocket," he tells a meeting of more than 100 sheikhs in the Zafaraniya district, a message he will deliver dozens more times before the Jan. 31 election. "I didn't ask for your votes in 2005, but I need them now."

A liberal Shiite, first appointed by US authorities as head of the Karrada City Council in 2003 and then elected to the post, Rubeiy had a dismal showing when he ran for provincial council four years ago. He's learned since then.

"I ran in the 2005 elections as an independent liberal and got 10,000 votes. I needed 36,000," says Rubeiy. This election, he is still an independent but affiliated with a list of candidates symbolically headed by Ayad Allawi, the first head of the US-installed provisional government in 2003.

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.

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."

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