RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq has covered several groundbreaking debates and forums throughout Iraq during the campaign leading up to the March 7 parliamentary elections.
In Diyala province on February 26, a local NGO hosted a debate intended to train citizens on how to question candidates. Candidates were given the opportunity to present their election programs to the public, and then faced questions from voters about their proposals and platform. Candidates from several lists and coalitions participated in the debate, and many citizens said they were eager for the opportunity to closely engage with the candidates. "This is a groundbreaking debate, and an important step for civil society," one citizen told RFI after the debate. "Passionate, active discussion is good for civil society, and for unity in Iraq. It is good to have interaction between the candidates and the people, who can ask the candidates challenging questions about their proposals. This is essential for the building of democracy in Iraq."
Other citizens took the opportunity to challenge the candidates to give specifics on how they planned to fulfill their campaign promises. A young man named Osama Ghazi said that he asked candidates how they intended to bring the services they had promised to Diyala province after they won the election. "I asked the candidates a question about how they intended to fulfill all of these promises in such a short time after they were seated in the next parliament, God willing," he explained.
In another debate on February 28, heralded as "the first of its kind in Al-Basrah province," candidates from a number of lists presented the details of their election platforms, followed by questions from the public, including few which embarrassed the candidates -- a fact which led to the clear annoyance of some candidates.
Jassim Hamadi, a candidate for the list of Mithal al-Alusi, recalled varied reactions to the clarity of the speakers' presentations: "You could really see the differences in the psychology of the individual candidates present. Some were eager to raise their hands to answer when the question was easy, but when the conversation jumped to a more challenging subject which they had not invited, those legislators seemed to want to be far away."
A female citizen who attended the debate said that despite the tension and contentious exchanges, the debate served its intended purpose. "This was a good debate. There was a convergence of ideas, a convergence of programs, and we saw here a distinctive system which we have not seen previously," she said. "I'm only sorry that there was such a limited time."
Other citizens were less impressed. Abeer Ibrahim remained skeptical, saying that the candidates' election platforms were nothing more than "mere slogans to win votes."
In Irbil, a debate was hosted on March 3. "This debate was beneficial because it brought the candidates closer to the people. It allowed people to closely examine the campaign platforms of the candidates and ask them questions about it," one female attendee said. When asked by RFI if she felt free to ask any question during the debate, she responded, "One hundred percent. We were not restricted from asking any specific question -- though unfortunately we were limited to asking only five questions."
"This was a solid, true step forward on the path towards democracy in Iraq. It was a good alternative to the violence, the destruction, the bombings which have afflicted so many Iraqi cities recently," another Irbil resident told RFI.
-- Alex Mayer