Secularist underdogs fight to be heard in Iraq election
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - "I am Iraqi, so do I exist?" is the question posed on the Civil Democratic Alliance's Facebook page.
The coalition of 10 liberal and secular parties aims to be an alternative to the communal politics defining Wednesday's national vote, aimed at people who feel so marginalized by Iraq's politics that they are hardly counted.
In an electoral race filled with old faces and vitriolic hatred, the underdog list hints at a way forward that has appeal for those wishing to move beyond the sectarian fears coloring Iraqi politics.
There are no reliable polls ahead of Wednesday's election, but the group hopes that by uniting likeminded small parties it can at least win some seats in the 328-member house and secure a voice for Iraqis whose views were previously ignored.
The country is at war, with the Iraqi military and militias battling Sunni extremists in areas surrounding Baghdad. Its most senior politicians - even the few high profile secularists such as Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister - are defined by their past struggles and political feuds.
The Civil Democratic Alliance which groups independents and smaller parties has struggled to be seen amid the giant city posters of officials in the current government, women candidates in full hijab, others pancaked in Technicolor makeup, and powerful militia members clad in camouflage who fight in Syria.
The glossy billboards testify to the big money necessary for campaigns in Iraq, with politicians whispering of their rivals' financiers and slush funds.
One Islamist candidate estimated to Reuters the cost of his parliamentary bid at over a million dollars. The lavish sums testify to how entrenched Iraq's ruling parties are 11 years after the U.S. invasion ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
The Civil Democratic Alliance's members say they can't afford to buy time on satellite news channels or pay for thousands of billboards.
"We don't have the money, the militias, or the media. But our people are behind us," said one of its leaders, Mithal Alusi, a self-described liberal and one time parliament member.
The alliance came about after the 2010 national election when both Alusi and the Communist party's head, Hamid Majid Mussa, were shut out of parliament due to the country's electoral law, which allowed the big party candidates to pass their surplus votes to other candidates down their party lists.
Alusi and the Communists had received more votes than many parliament members who rode into parliament on the coattails of their slate's popular candidates.
As they watched violence rise and the political elite's contentious bickering, they decided to join forces. They felt something had to change after a decade of the same faces, mainly Shi'ite and Sunni Islamists, who failed to meet public demands for security, jobs and services despite Iraq's oil wealth.
"We want to bring hope to the new generation and bring them into the game, not leave them outside," Alusi told Reuters.
What they lack in money, they make up for in drive and digital savvy. Jaafar al Kutubi, an engineer, administers the alliance's Facebook page, which has 47,000 "likes".
He has conducted polls online about what Iraqis want in a candidate. Based on the survey, some of their candidates have signed a pledge, if elected, to give up their parliament pension and allowances for bodyguards and other bonuses, which regular Iraqis see as perks of a pampered elite.
"We want scientists, doctors and economists. Parliament is no place for clerics," reads one posts on the alliance's Facebook page.
They are hoping to tap broad discontent over a political class that came in with the Americans and has presided over an Iraq mired in violence, poor services and official corruption.
It is a sentiment many Sunnis and Shi'ites alike share. In the last election, with the country healing from a civil war, candidates including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ran on a platform of national unity.
But that faded in the vote's tension-filled aftermath, as Maliki looked to religious Shi'ite parties to form a winning coalition. Even if many Iraqis yearn to break free of the communal politics that have governed the country with poor results since 2003, it is hard to take the leap.
"You speak to people who genuinely yearn for a politics that transcend sectarian identity, but ... there is not enough trust to break ranks and adopt someone from across the fence," said Fanar Haddad, author of "Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity".
"Fear and lack of trust are probably the biggest hurdles," Haddad said.
Realistically the Civil Democratic Alliance expects to win at most 5-10 seats, with 15-20 seats seen as a remote hope. The problem then would be how to avoid being swallowed up by the established parties.
"(The alliance) is a new force and they are the only ones who can really present themselves as an alternative," Haddad said. "(But) you are still tied into the system."
In a house in eastern Baghdad's Sab Ibkar neighborhood, young college students gather enthusiastically at the house of Dr. Muhammad Ali Zaini, one of the coalition's candidates.
The U.S.-educated economist and oil expert, 74, lectures the enthusiastic young men on the language of tolerance.
"I believe in ... true democracy, not superficial democracy, not the democracy of saying one thing and then actually transgressing peoples rights," Zaini, a balding man with grey hair, told his acolytes.
His supporters lionize him for walking through Baghdad without an entourage, handing out fliers. His picture has attracted thousands of "likes" on Facebook.
His campaign relies on volunteers. Young college students team up and tour the streets of Baghdad with fliers and little posters carrying Zaini's picture.
Ghazwan, a student at Baghdad University, is one in his army of volunteers. On campus, he tells his friends religion should be de-politicized and secularism is the only solution.
He acknowledges he sometimes enters into heated arguments with hardliners who believe religious parties should continue to rule and that voting for a secular state is forbidden from an Islamic point of view.
"Our mission is to educate people and persuade them that change is in their hands," he said.
Whether they win or lose, Alusi believes his mission has succeeded. He knows they will not change Iraq overnight, but their coalition is a break with politics since 2003.
"We need fresh new Iraqi people who believe in the country. We won't find it in the old generation. It will be the young."
(Editing by Peter Graff)