With only weeks to go until a parliamentary election, Iraq's politicians are not merely putting on their best smiles and making promises but also providing services the government was supposed to.
The election on October 10, the fifth since the end of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in 2003, is an important test for Iraq’s fledgling democracy amid widespread sentiment against its political elite. A mass protest movement that began in October 2019 forced a change of government last year and elections are to be held early under a new electoral law.
Iraqis will cast their ballots to choose among 3,249 contenders for the 328 seats in Parliament. The new electoral law means independent candidates are standing for the first time. Out of about 25 million registered voters, slightly more than 23 million have updated their information to become eligible to take part.
Candidates are using every possible method to attract voters, from the traditional billboards and shaking of hands to sponsored advertisements on social media and holding rallies with speeches, song and poetry.
Some candidates are even paving streets, replacing electricity transformers and repairing or installing water treatment plants in rural areas at their own expense.
“Since early morning we are here to pave the streets and install lights as we promised you,” former MP Haider Al Mulla says in a video of him overseeing the work, posted on his Facebook page.
Mr Al Mulla is standing from Baghdad’s western Amiriyah neighbourhood and surrounding areas as a candidate of the Sunni Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi’s Taqadum party.
For about three months now, he has been mingling with the people – playing backgammon in cafes, getting his haircut at local barbershops and attending funerals.
In another video, he is seen in hospital with a leukaemia patient in need of a bone-marrow transplant and promising his family to find him treatment in Iraq or abroad.
“Rest assured, the residents of Amiriyah are in my eyes,” he says.
Thousands of campaign posters and billboards dot the cities with promises of a better life and photos of candidates, including politicians blamed for the country’s woes.
“We will make it a state again,” the State of Law coalition promises in a billboard with the picture of its Shiite leader Nouri Al Maliki, the prime minister from 2006 to 2014.
The implicit promise is to strengthen the government's hand in the face of challenges from the mainly Iran-backed Shiite militias whose influence has grown since taking part in the defeat of the Sunni extremist group ISIS in 2017.
The sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiites grew under Mr Al Maliki's prime ministership. He is accused of authoritarianism and blamed for the rise of ISIS in Iraq in 2014.
The Fatah coalition, comprised mainly of politicians linked to the Shiite militias, has based its campaign on protecting Iraq from Sunni militants and pro-US elements in Iraq.
“We protect and build our Iraq,” says the Fatah slogan, with a portrait of its leader, Hadi Al Amiri, juxtaposed with its logo featuring a lion’s head.
Mr Al Amiri, who spent decades in Iran and enjoys close ties with its Revolutionary Guard, leads the influential Badr Organisation, one of the main state-sanctioned militias that fought ISIS.
Their rival, the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, is eyeing the premiership for his followers, saying his Sairoon alliance would secure a political majority in parliament and assume leadership of the next government.
“We will take it and never relinquish it,” a local poet told a political rally to launch its election campaign.
“We will be the biggest bloc and nominate whoever we want,” he told Mr Al Sadr's cheering supporters. “The [next] prime minister will be from Mahdi Army,” he said, referring to the cleric's militia, now renamed as Al Salam Brigades.
Mr Al Sadr is not standing for a seat himself but serves as spiritual leader to Sairoon, which won the most seats in the 2018 election.
The elections have been brought forward from May next year, the end of the current parliament's four-year term, in response to the demand for an overhaul of Iraqi politics by protesters angered by corruption, high unemployment and a lack of government services.
Under the new electoral law, voters can cast ballots for individual candidates, rather than a party, and candidates can stand as independents.
Unlike previous elections, Iraq will be divided into 83 constituencies instead of being treated as one. The former system allotted seats to political parties based on their share of the national vote. Instead, the seats will go to the candidates who receive the most votes in each constituency.
The participation of independent candidates is visible in the presence of small posters put up among the larger ones of political parties.
“I have nominated myself for the sake of my country,” says Alaa Mahdi Al Zubaidi, a tribal sheikh, in a poster hanging from an electricity pole in Baghdad’s Jabiriyah district. Not far away, another poster simply lists the name of the candidate, Zainab Essam Al Tukmachi, and urges young people to vote for her.
Instances of the public tearing up posters or setting them on fire have prompted the authorities to threaten arrests.
Many Iraqis are not convinced by the electoral promises, a sentiment reflected in posts by the popular blogger Mufeed Abass, who writes about Iraqi politics and daily life.
“Whenever I gaze at the candidates’ faces in the posters, I feel the laugh they try to hide,” he wrote on Facebook.
“As if they are saying: ‘I will become a parliament member, get a multimillion salary, secure jobs for my brothers and relatives, get commissions and change all my phone numbers.
“Some are not hiding their laugh because they have already laughed at us and will continue laughing for the rest of the democratic age in Iraq.
“Laughers, the day will come when you will cry.”