Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a house in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, dozens of men hung on Alaa Al Rikabi’s words.
“We are in a grinding war with the parties,” said Mr Al Rikabi, a candidate in Sunday's general election, referring to the political class that rose to power after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
“Those who were at the helm over the past 18 years have utterly failed in running the country,” Mr Al Rikabi said as his audience sipped sweet black tea, fingering prayer beads and puffing cigarettes.
“If we talk about thieves, they are the thieves. If we talk about sectarianism, they are the ones who created it for their own benefit,” he said.
The men nodded in agreement.
The parliamentary election was scheduled for May next year but is being held early to appease the pro-reform protest movement that began in October 2019, when thousands of Iraqis filled the streets of Baghdad and southern Shiite-dominated cities, including Nasiriyah. The protests unseated the previous government and forced parliament to endorse a new election law that allows independent candidates to contest elections.
Iraqis will choose from 3,249 contenders for the 329-seat parliament. Out of about 25 million registered voters, a little more than 23 million have updated their information to become eligible to take part.
Nasiriyah was one of the main stops for Shiite leaders returning from exile through Iran and Kuwait after the fall of Saddam's regime, where huge crowds turned out to greet them.
“Then, we were happy to see Shiites coming to power,” Salih Mahdi, 40, a Shiite taxi driver, told The National. “Instead, they have taken revenge on us.”
Like many of Nasiriyah’s residents, he laments that his home town has become a “disaster area” owing to a lack of proper public services and jobs.
Most of the city, about 360 kilometres south of Baghdad, is plunged into darkness during frequent power cuts; its dusty streets are filthy with rubbish and sewage; and impoverished settlements crowd its outskirts.
Since October 2019, Nasiriyah has become a mirror of the growing resentment among Shiites towards their political leaders. The youth-led protest movement died down in early 2020 after a heavy-handed crackdown by Iraqi security forces and militia groups and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Nearly 600 protesters died in the crackdown, including 137 protesters from Nasiriyah, and thousands more were wounded.
Two years since the outbreak of protests, the streets of Nasiriyah are still tense. Troops are posted at the main intersections; pictures of slain protesters dot the streets and walls are covered with protest slogans. The charred skeletons of political parties’ headquarters stand testament to public disenchantment.
Few political parties have erected campaign posters because protesters tear them up. In one incident, gunmen on motorcycles shot and wounded a man who was putting up posters for an independent candidate.
On Sunday, dozens of protesters gathered at Al Haboubi Square, the epicentre of the protests in Nasiriyah, to mark the first anniversary of the kidnapping of an activist. Soldiers dispersed them when they tried to set up a tent.
Mr Al Rikabi, 47, a pharmacist, was a prominent activist who was often seen leading protests in Nasiriyah in a white lab coat with an Iraqi flag wrapped around his neck.
The Imtidad Movement that he founded with other activists in January has become one of the most prominent parties linked to the protest movement. Now, it has 38 candidates running for the elections in nine provinces – six of them in Nasiriyah, including Mr Al Rikabi.
Mr Al Rikabi has been spending most of his days preparing campaign posters with volunteers and attending meetings with Nasiriyah residents that continue past midnight.
His phone rings constantly with calls from people inviting him to political meetings or from campaign workers updating him on electoral preparations.
“The one who will vote for them [the established politicians] or for candidates who [only] claim to be independent will commit a crime against himself, his sons and our country,” he told one gathering.
Mr Al Rikabi believes that while independent candidates might not sweep the election, their presence in parliament will be a “foundation stone” for a real change.
“If the turnout is high then we’ll see a change [in parliament] and that change will be very clear,” he told The National.
But not all activists share Mr Al Rikabi's view.
Hussein Al Adhmawi, a member of the newly founded National House party, is boycotting the election.
“The current conditions are not suitable to hold elections,” Mr Al Adhmawi, 21, a political science student, told The National.
“The elections we seek can’t be held with the presence of the uncontrolled weapons [in the hands of militias] and the political money,” he said.
As Mr Al Rikabi was wrapping up one of his meetings, a member of the audience spoke up.
“In the 2018 elections, we voted for someone who later changed his phone number and we didn't see him any more,” said Riayadh Ashour, 59.
“We want a clear commitment from you that you will continue to be in touch with us,” he said.
“Definitely,” Mr Al Rikabi replied. “But, I also want you to support me in the street, not to vote and turn your back. We may win five or 10 or 15 seats – if we are supported in the street, we can get things done inside parliament.”