Iraq is preparing for general elections at the end of April. Despite the fact that all of the candidates and their parties have now been listed, election campaigning shouldn’t start officially until Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, approves a date. And campaigning should also stop 24 hours before the polling centres open on April 30.
“We haven't yet specified a date for election campaigns to begin,” Kalshan Kamal, one of the commissioners from IHEC, told NIQASH. “We need to check that all candidates are eligible for office first. Doing this is complex and it requires time. Only when we've finished this, can election campaigning begin properly.”
But as usual in Iraq, politicians are hardly paying any attention to the rules. Many have found ways in which they can begin campaigning and they’re using electioneering tools that IHEC doesn't cover, or doesn't explicitly ban.
One of the most common loopholes involves social media site, Facebook. There are now dozens, if not hundreds, of Facebook pages promoting certain Iraqi politicians, advertising their election promises or broadcasting the serial numbers their parties will use for identification in the election. Hundreds of ordinary Iraqis have been receiving mysterious friendship requests and unsolicited letters from candidates.
The majority of Iraqis using Facebook are younger so a lot of the letters talk about youth-friendly topics, such as sports or cultural events. Some of the approaches have backfired though, with Facebook users making jokes about the candidates and their pictures.
Such overt campaigning – even through social media – is clearly a violation of IHEC's rules. IHEC could impose fines or stop a candidate from running. But the Commission says it hasn't been able to catch anyone let alone punish them for the infringement.
The lack of a realistic law around elections, representation and the formation of political parties doesn't help either.
“Laws on campaigning are fairly general and there's no specific reference banning the use of websites like Facebook, Twitter or other similar sites,” admits another of IHEC's commissioners, Katea al-Zubai. Additionally, “it's almost impossible to see who actually owns these pages or started them,” al-Zubai adds. “Every politician says it wasn't them personally. They say the pages have been started by their fans and supporters and that these people are the ones responsible for early election campaigning.”
This has happened before. During provincial elections in April last year, IHEC tried to punish online infringements like this. The politicians made the same excuses and the case was later dropped.
Another way around the ban on election campaigning has been via what appears to be bogus support for Iraqi troops fighting insurgents in Anbar province.
Political parties are illustrating their “support” for troops by making large signs and banners that depict the leader of their bloc, or other sympathetic politicians, surrounded by military men. The signs carry messages about their support for the Iraqi army and often the messages or the signs are also in the party's campaign colours – just in case onlookers don't get the point straight away.
For example, the State of Law bloc, which is headed by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, uses red lettering with a light green background while the Islamic Supreme Council, which is led by cleric Ammar al-Hakim, uses green lettering with a yellow background. The bloc led by leading Sunni Muslim politician, Osama al-Nujaifi, is using green lettering too but with a white background.
And ordinary Iraqis are familiar with these colours. The politicians don't need to identify their parties more than that. Just using the colours ensures Iraqi voters know who the banner belongs to.
Once again, the nature of IHEC's generalised rules means that it is almost impossible to prosecute the politicians for early campaigning of this nature.
The bigger blocs are skilled in by-passing IHEC's rules, former MP, judge and legal expert, Wael Abdul-Latif, told NIQASH. “If they can't find a way to manipulate the rules, then they'll find a way to violate them,” he suggested. “And it's easy to avoid prosecution.”