Land, weapons buys Iraq votes

2010-03-03 17:05

Baghdad – The Arabic word that has delivered land, money, weapons, clothes and numerous other perks for Iraqis in the run-up to Sunday's parliamentary election is "rashwa". The English word is bribe.

In a country where cash is king – Iraq has no credit card system, almost no electronic banking and there are no laws on political fundraising or campaigning – pretty much anything is seen as fair game.

"One of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's candidates offered pistols to the tribal sheikhs and money," said Mohammed Ali, an athlete from Nasiriyah, a Shi’ite-dominant city 305km south of Baghdad.

"Another gifted sport uniforms to our team, but we told them this doesn't mean we will vote for you."

Maliki has defended the practice and said he would gift weapons to anyone whose heroic actions have safeguarded the country's security.

Not even the intervention of Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, the nation's top Shi’ite cleric, who said bribes are forbidden and has remained politically neutral while encouraging people to vote, has stopped the practice.

Less lavish gifts

In Diyala province, a hotbed of the al-Qaeda insurgency against US and Iraq's Shi’ite-dominated security forces, some of the gifts are less lavish than pistols but are nonetheless welcomed.

Ahmed Adnan, a 23-year-old student, laughed as he described how people in his neighbourhood queued to receive frozen chickens from Islamic Party officials, in a frantic process that saw some get five birds and others none.

Some of the voters were asked to swear on the Qu’ran that they would give the party their vote.

"The candidates were saying 'we will give you a future, vote for us and we will give you anything you want,' handing out their business cards and asking voters to call them to solve their problems after the election," said Adnan.

The Iraqiya list of former premier Iyad Allawi has strong Sunni backing but attempts to shore up support in Diyala have not been universally welcomed.

"One of their candidates offered $85 for our votes, but we refused," said 27-year-old Fatima Zuhair.

Karim Saad, 37, a taxi driver, added, "I received food from the Iraqiya list but I will not vote for them. They only came when they needed us."

Quest for parliament seat

The quest for a seat in parliament and a prospective tax-free annual salary of more than $100 000 has seen the best-backed of 6 200 candidates spend heavily on campaign leaflets, billboard posters and television advertising.

For less well moneyed contenders, however, campaigning has been more communal.

Gaylan Sadiq, an independent candidate in Zayuna, a district in eastern Baghdad, painted the block of 20 flats where he lives and erected a poster of himself at the top of the building.

"We are working to serve you and we will continue," it reads.

In the north of the country, where a fierce battle is raging between the historically-dominant Kurdish Alliance and the breakaway Goran (Change) movement, there is an attitude that every little helps.

"The best thing I got was the free petrol," said Aras Karim, a 34-year-old taxi driver from Sulaimaniyah, a stronghold of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), part of the Kurdistan Alliance.

"It is not important for me whether I vote for the Kurdish Alliance, or another Kurdish party. I took the petrol to benefit my daily life."

Karim Mohammed, a former Kurdish peshmerga fighter based in Sulaimaniyah, said he recently asked his PUK boss for a piece of land and was initially refused.

"Two days ago he called me offering me the land on condition that I guarantee him the votes of my family. I refused because I am in Goran now."