KARBALA, Iraq, (AP) – Hundreds of Shiites took to the streets in one of Iraq’s holiest cities Saturday to insist that a populist candidate who won the most votes in provincial elections become governor.
The rally for Youssef al-Haboubi was the latest sign of a backlash against the mainstream and religious parties that have dominated Iraqi politics since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The 51-year-old independent candidate won nearly 15 percent of the vote in the Jan. 31 balloting but was given only one seat on the provincial council because he ran as an independent without any political allies.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s allies and another Shiite party were expected to join forces to gain the majority on the provincial council, which chooses the governor.
Supporters carried Iraqi flags and pictures of al-Haboubi and chanted “No to dominant parties” and “we demand the rights of voters” as they converged in the area between two revered Shiite shrines.
The Coalition of the State of Law, which was loyal to al-Maliki, and the Hope of Mesopotamia won more than 8 percent each and were allotted a combined 18 seats on the 27-member Karbala provincial council.
In most of the southern Shiite heartland, al-Maliki’s allies won the largest share of votes in a victory seen as a reward for government operations that restored security in much of the area. But his coalition failed to gain an outright majority, forcing it to form alliances to govern.
Many voters also expressed frustration over the dominance of Shiite religious parties and other mainstream groups they blamed for government failures in providing services and jobs.
Al-Haboubi captured the most votes and contends that he should be governor because of the popular support in Karbala, home to two of the most revered Shiite shrines 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad.
The outcome was particularly surprising because Karbala is al-Maliki’s home province and his Dawa Party dominated the outgoing provincial council.
“We’ve had nothing but words from the local government over the past five years,” protester Abdul-Khaliq Mukhtar said. “We’ve had enough. We want al-Haboubi because we have known him for many years. We need a man of his integrity, honor and morals.”
Al-Haboubi is a former deputy governor of Karbala who enjoys tremendous popularity because residents credit him with rebuilding the city after it was destroyed by Saddam Hussein’s forces as they put down a 1991 Shiite uprising.
He has drawn criticism because he was a member of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated Baath party, but he contends that he was not an active member.
The elections — held Jan. 31 without major violence but later tainted by allegations of fraud — were seen as a chance to extend the Sunni political voice and test the strength of main Shiite parties before national races later this year.
The provincial councils have no direct sway over national affairs but carry wide powers over regional matters such as business deals and local security.