Iraqi comedy show raises army of youth voters ahead of elections

The 'cleanest of the dirty' Iraqi political candidates to be ranked by Albasheer Show

Portrait of Ahmed Albasheer, an Iraqi comedian most prominently known for being the founder and anchor of the Albasheer Show, a news satire and talk show television program.
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In campaigning for upcoming elections, the majority of Iraq’s 6,982 political candidates have promised to fight corruption, tackle sectarianism and rebuild the country following the defeat of ISIS. But a popular Iraqi satire show has struck comedy gold by mining their previously recorded statements to expose their hypocrisy.

The Albasheer Show is headed by Ahmed Albasheer, 33, who is often described as an Iraqi Jon Stewart. Since launching in 2014, the Friday night show has made a big impact, particularly among Iraqi youth. Mr Albasheer is now hoping to mobilise his following to influence the scheduled May 12 general elections.

Portrait of Ahmed Albasheer, an Iraqi comedian most prominently known for being the founder and anchor of the Albasheer Show, a news satire and talk show television program.

A recent episode of the show featured a clip of one candidate vehemently attacking the Popular Mobilisation Forces or Hashed Al Shaabi – an umbrella group of mainly Shiite militias, many backed by Iran. But by the next clip the candidate had about-faced. “The Hashed became legal and constitutional, so of course we are with them,” he said.

"Greaaaaaat," cried out Albasheer, laughing uproariously at the contrasting clips. "When you have to change your skin to fit your interests, you're going to run out of skins to wear."

In the four years since it launched, the Albasheer Show has attracted 2.3 million followers on Facebook, 85 per cent of whom are under 30. Broadcast on YouTube, Facebook and the German-based Deutsche Welle Arabic channel, each episode is viewed over seven million times. Mr Albasheer himself has been ranked among the 20 most influential people in the Arab world, according to the Swiss-based Global Influence Research Centre.


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Now the latest season of the show is putting that influence to use to try and make a positive change in Iraqi politics. "We've been waiting four years for this moment," Mr Albasheer tells The National. "Iraqi people forget very quickly when someone hurts them. We're here to give them the true background."

Using satire to expose hypocrisy can be an edgy proposition in Iraq, where many leaders are used to operating beyond public scrutiny. Earlier episodes of the shows prompted death threats, presumably from the disgruntled targets of their satire, and the Albasheer Show is now filmed in neighbouring Jordan.

Audience laugh at the weekly shooting of the Albasheer Show, an Iraqi news satire and talk show television program.

That hasn’t affected the show’s popularity. “This is the best TV programme in Iraq,” says Nameer Alashiar, one of the 150 mostly young Iraqi men roaring with laughter at a recent filming in a TV studio in Amman. “He’s a role model for us young people,” says the 25-year-old who grew up in Baghdad before moving to Jordan. “He teaches us a lot about politicians.”

Ahmed Abdulkareem Hussein, 26, from Basra but now living in the Jordanian capital, agrees. "Albasheer uses humour to get young people interested and involved in politics. It is very smart."

Each week, a team of 25 Albasheer researchers trawl through 72 Iraqi television channels and innumerable YouTube videos searching for false promises, contradictory comments and risible interviews to produce satirical clips exposing the true face of Iraq's political candidates.

“On every programme, [former prime minister Nouri] Al Maliki promises to create jobs, give land to the poor and build roads, hospitals and schools,” says Anssam Al Yassin, a researcher on the show. “But he hasn’t done anything! How can people continue blindly following the same old guys?”

By specifically targeting youth voters, the show hopes to change that. With nearly half its population under 19, Iraq is one of the youngest countries in the world. But many of its youth are already disillusioned. “I used to cancel my vote by drawing a big cross on my ballot paper, so that no one could take or use it,” says Mr Hussein.

“We can’t trust any politicians since their only goal is to earn money,” says Mr Alashiar.

To combat this apathy, Mr Albasheer publishes short videos very week encouraging the youth to go to the polls. “They can change everything,” Mr Albasheer says, referring to Iraq's younger generation.

Ahmed Albasheer (left) take a selfies with a group of fans. Albasheer is an Iraqi comedian most prominently known for being the founder and anchor of the Albasheer Show, a news satire and talk show television program.

The show also encourages audience participation by inviting viewers to vote online for or against the candidates lampooned in each episode. Unsurprisingly, the results frequently reveal extremely low approval ratings. After a recent episode, 96 per cent of 73,000 voters on the show’s Facebook page disapproved of former Salahaddin governor Ahmed Abdullah Al Jubouri.

On the eve of the Iraqi parliamentary elections, on May 11, the Albasheer Show will air its trump card. The show will broadcast its list of the "cleanest of the dirty" political candidates for each province of Iraq.

“If we choose better people, we will head towards a better future,” Mr Albasheer says. “I want it to work out. If not, I will quit."