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Middle East

Getting the vote out on Baghdad's streets

Iraq will elect a new parliament on April 30. Nouri al-Maliki hopes to stay in office. Campaigning is taking place mostly in the streets, with 39 groups vying for votes.

The streets of Baghdad have never been as colorful as they are these days. Red, yellow, lime green and deep blue are the most popular colors, with no lack of variations. The public squares in particular have been transformed into a sea of colors.

Colossal posters

This isn't the work of artists, however. The colorful street scenes come from the campaign posters of the various parties, alliances and other groups seeking attention ahead of the elections.

Election billboards

There is no shortage of campaign posters and billboards in Baghdad

The posters line the streets like a curtain. In fact, in some places, several are plastered over each other, the one larger than the other. The candidates are presented in colossal proportions, as if size can sway voting behavior.

About 9,000 candidates are vying for 328 seats in the Iraqi parliament, to be elected on Wednesday (30.04.2014). Each of them is trying to convince the 21.5 million eligible voters that only he or she can turn the fortunes of the country around. It is the first crucial election since the withdrawal of US troops at the end of 2011.

You can't miss incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is seeking a third term. His coalition government, which has chosen lime green as its official color, is presenting a wide variety of candidates. In a move to ensure his position, Maliki has positioned supporters in other parties and coalitions. They could help the 63-year-old Shiite retain power should his party fail to secure the necessary majority.

National identity

A total of 39 alliances and larger groups have registered to run for election. In addition to the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties, several mixed groups have emerged that seek to overcome the division in the country and establish a national identity. Ever since Saddam Hussein's overthrow, voting has gone along ethnic and religious lines. The emerging diversification of the political landscape represents a glimmer of hope for the still deeply divided country.

Nuri al-Maliki

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hopes to stay in office

But such diversification could also lead to utter uncertainty for those voters who view politicians as corrupt and incompetent. Frustration has followed the initial euphoric elections after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when long queues outside polling stations were the rule and the poor security situation didn't prevent people from voting.

Chaos still dominates daily life. Corruption is omnipresent, unemployment remains high and the public sector is weak. And the word on the streets is that politicians are lining their own pockets.

A photo of the female candidate Basima al-Sady hangs next to Prime Minister Maliki on Firdous Square, where the bronze stature of Hussein was toppled from its pedestal. Sady is in Maliki's camp. Uniquely among countries in the region, Iraq has a quota for women which gives them 25 percent of seats in parliament.

Direct vote

Sady, a 56-year-old Shiite, comes to the campaign meeting in a nearby hotel properly dressed according to Islamic tradition in a blue coat and blue-brown scarf. She distributes posters and small cards.

Terrorist attack

Many areas of Iraq remain subject to terrorist attacks

For the first time, voters cast their votes not for a party, group or list but for a candidate directly. The result has been an extremely personal election campaign in which programs and goals are secondary.

Sady is relying heavily on her popularity in Sadr City, her residential district in eastern Baghdad. With more than 2 million inhabitants, it is one of the largest city districts - and with an almost exclusively Shiite population. Sady and Maliki are likely to receive the most votes there.

Sady's campaign slogan is "We continue what we have begun"; she was a member of the security and defense committee in the first transitional parliament and has been politically active since 2005. Using the same words as the prime minister, she makes neighboring countries responsible for the devastating wave of terror that has covered Iraq since over a year.

'Iraq's new Hussein'

Sady, Maliki and the supporters of lime green stand largely alone in their calls for continuity, however. All others groups are campaigning for change and an end to the era of the prime minister whom many call Iraq's new Hussein.

Campaigning on Firdous Square

Firdous Square is full of election billboards and posters

No matter to which party candidates belong - whether blue, red, brown or yellow - all of them point on their posters to the priorities the prime minister listed eight years ago but never achieved, including improving the security situation and fighting corruption.

Even Maliki's closest coalition partners, the Shiite parties of Ammar al Hakim (yellow) and Moktada al-Sadr (orange), are distancing themselves from the prime minister. He's finding himself increasingly isolated. Should his party emerge from the elections as the strongest block, it will be difficult for him to find coalition parties.

Campaigning on Baghdad's streets also includes tearing down posters and banners and replacing them with new ones. Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq or "Justice League," a party totally unthinkable under Hussein, is campaigning with slogans in black and green letters. The group is actually a Shiite militia whose fighters were trained in Iran. They have claimed thousands of lives through terrorist attacks and are now looking for political legitimacy.

Like their "opponents" in the Sunni Terrorist groups Al-Qaeda or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), they are able within seconds to transform Baghdad's otherwise vibrant and currently inviting streets into scenes of bloody violence.

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