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Analysis: Iraqi Media Try To Fill Campaign Vacuum

  • Kathleen Ridolfo

The Iraqi media has served as the single most important venue for election coalition lists in a campaign that is virtually absent of campaigning. The security situation is so dire in some areas of the country during the lead-up to the 30 January election that the names of candidates on most lists have not been released to the public. Some Iraqi citizens complain that they know virtually nothing of the 112 lists on the ballot, according to newspaper reports. However, the political parties and coalitions are making use of print and broadcast media to present their platforms, and media outlets in turn are promoting messages encouraging voter participation in the election.

The coalition lists are comprised of the major political parties -- the majority of which belonged to the former Iraqi opposition that returned with U.S. financial support after the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime. The parties on the lists all have their own newspapers; many have radio and local-access television programs, which they use to promote their platforms. Some independent newspapers have made efforts to devote space to covering smaller party lists, but it is unknown how much effect that will have on the election.

The United Iraqi Alliance has the candidate list expected to win a majority of votes in the election, and rival parties and coalitions have accused it of attempting to sway voters by placing pictures of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on their list posters and campaign material. That way, detractors claim, the alliance sends the message to Shi'ites that al-Sistani has endorsed the list. The ayatollah has stopped short of giving official endorsement to any list, although he is given credit for assembling the United Iraqi Alliance list. In reality, it was his representatives that played a role in negotiating the composition of the list among the Shi'a parties.

Sunni groups opposed to participating in the election regularly espouse their views in supporting newspapers and are often quoted in what would be considered the popular press, owned by independent or pro-election party newspapers. Sunni groups that will participate in the elections despite some hesitancy over the issue have also made their platforms known.

Reports and commentaries in print media have devoted much attention to debating topics such as the efficacy of postponing elections, the role that Islam will play in a future Iraqi state presumably led by a Shi'ite majority, the possible withdrawal of multinational forces, the Kurdish issue and the Kirkuk election, the coming constitution that will be drafted by the elected parliament, and the need to support democracy and transparent elections. Newspapers have also covered official statements from the Iraqi Independent Election Commission concerning the elections. At least three dailies claim to have their own research institutes that regularly carry out public-opinion polls on the election, which they routinely publish. Coverage of the local governorate elections has been sparse outside the areas of Kirkuk and Baghdad.

As for television, Prime Minister Allawi has received the bulk of airtime, giving interviews and participating in discussions about the election on Iraqi terrestrial and satellite broadcasting channels. Other candidates have also participated in roundtable discussions broadcast on various channels, but Allawi -- whether by virtue of being prime minister or by intention -- has dominated the airwaves. Kurdish television channels have devoted much airtime to discussions and debates on both national and local elections.

As far as advertising, Allawi's Iraqi List with its sleek ads that appear as if they were produced by a Manhattan advertising firm, again dominate television -- some media outlets have reported the ads were made in London. The United Iraqi Alliance is also advertising on television. But again, the majority of the candidate lists do not have the means to produce such ads, let alone pay for television advertising space. Some reports indicate that at least one television channel, Al-Iraqiyah, has offered free airtime for lists wishing to advertise, but that claim has not been confirmed.

Iraqi television channels have done a thorough job of promoting voter participation, and have frequently carried public-information advertisements urging Iraqis to vote. However, the ads give little information about where and how to vote. Iraqi radio has also devoted much time to election coverage, particularly stations that support a radio call-in format.

Generally speaking, the media overwhelmingly supports elections at this time, and takes great pains to stress that it is the duty of Iraqis to take part in the election. Some stress a historical duty, while others stress a religious duty; still others claim that nonparticipation will only strengthen terrorist elements trying to destabilize the country.

[For news, background, and analysis on Iraq's historic 30 January elections, see RFE/RL's webpage "Iraq Votes 2005".]
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