BAGHDAD (AP) – The Iraqi government has banned candidates in upcoming provincial elections from using pictures in their campaign materials of people not running for office, the government’s spokesman said Thursday.
The ban primarily effects Shiite religious parties such as the movement of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that use images of clerics in campaign posters. The government also banned candidates from campaigning in mosques or other places of worship.
Shiite politicians flooded the country with posters of the country’s main Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and others during elections in 2005, capitalizing on their prestige to win power in the two national elections. That has led to a backlash among other religious groups and even among more secular-minded Shiites alarmed over clerical influence in Iraqi society.
The ban is likely to have the greatest impact on al-Sadr, who has built a large following among disgruntled Shiites in Baghdad and southern Iraq who haven’t benefited from the rise of a Shiite-led government in the country.
Pictures of al-Sadr, who comes from one of Iraq’s most esteemed Shiite families, line the streets of places like Baghdad’s Sadr City.
Al-Sadr’s followers hope to use this fall’s provincial council balloting to loosen the grip on power that their Shiite rivals have enjoyed since the January 2005 elections, which the Sadrists boycotted.
The group does not plan to run a separate list of Sadrist candidates but will instead have them join other tickets and represent the movement on an individual basis. These candidates could benefit from the Iraqi government’s decision Tuesday to run provincial elections according to an open-list system, allowing voters to choose individual candidates rather than simply picking a party.
Many voters criticized the government’s decision to run the first provincial elections with a closed-list system, possibly pushing them to make Tuesday’s change.
The Sadrists now believe the 2005 boycott was a major political blunder, enabling Shiite parties that have cooperated with the Americans to wield power in the oil-rich Shiite heartland.
For months, the Sadrists have been complaining that their Shiite political rivals in the government have been targeting their movement ahead of the upcoming elections, arresting many of their followers under the pretext of security crackdowns.
Most Sunnis also boycotted the 2005 balloting, enabling Shiites and Kurds to win a disproportionate share of power, even in areas with a substantial Sunni population.
The Sunnis are fully participating in the new round of elections and could benefit from the Iraqi government’s decision Tuesday to allow internally displaced Iraqis to vote. More than 2 million Iraqis have been displaced inside the country by violence, most of them Sunnis.
The elections will choose governing councils in Iraq’s 18 provinces and are seen as a key step in repairing the country’s sectarian rifts. The councils have gained power since the first round of elections from specific provisions in the constitution, which wasn’t yet ratified by January 2005.
The vote is scheduled to be held by October, but there is considerable uncertainty whether it will happen on time because parliament has not approved a new law providing for the elections.