Throughout the day, lorry trucks pass through Mosul and other cities in Iraq to urge people to vote. The request is accompanied by the Iraqi national anthem. Only for the myezin, who calls for prayer at noon, the little male voice is silent for a moment. Shortly before 07:00, with the opening of the polling stations, patriotic music plays and continues non-stop until 18:00, when the polls close again. By then, more than 20 million Iraqis may have cast their ballots. How much they actually go to the polls will be crucial to the country’s future.
Because, as in Germany two weeks ago, this parliamentary election in Iraq is also a leadership election. Change or stagnation is also the question in Mesopotamia. However, this is not primarily about climate protection, digitalisation and fighting pandemics, but the basics. Iraq’s political system is up for grabs. If this election succeeds in taking Iraq a little further towards democracy, the country would become a beacon in a sea of autocrats, dictators and ayatollahs. External pressure in this election is just as strong. Interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is closing the airport for three days and rotating his F-16 fighter jets over the cities of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra to ensure peaceful elections, he says.
“Beitna”, which translates to our house, is already a beacon. In the ruins of the old city of Mosul on the right bank of the Tigris, cafes and cultural centers have become a meeting place for an alternative scene currently appearing in what was once Iraq’s second largest city. After the Islamic State (IS) terrorist militia, which had had strong control in Mosul for more than three years, Sakar discovered the house among the rubble. “He was not as damaged as the others around him,” says the twenty-something. He and his friends lovingly went to work, renovating, painting, encouraging artists to leave their mark. A small museum with old artifacts from the city has been set up in a room whose ceiling has been badly damaged by a shell. Sakar did not want to whitewash everything. You have to see what happened here, he says. Sakar has created an oasis between fiction and reality.
Around Beitna, the rest of the old town is slowly, very slowly coming back to life. The ruins have been removed, some houses have been renovated, others have completely collapsed because they can no longer be saved. Street cafes, food stalls, shops start. Mosul’s best falafel restaurant has been revived in the devastated west of the city, locals say. A sign of departure for them. Chains of lights on the ruined right bank of the Tiger and colorful lamps in the fountain in the evening are meant to hide the gloom of the day. Because the only thing that is currently being renovated from the foundations west of Mosul are the mosques with money from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, the district is still a single field of ruins.
Voters still undecided
Around 21:00, Beitna is filled with mostly male guests. They sit, play dominoes, smoke hookah, drink tea, sweet Turkish mocha or drink a drink called “Numi Basra” – a drink made from dried black lemon, which contains a lot of vitamin C. But this evening you will have intense discussions. The next day is the election and “intihabat” is on everyone’s lips. A small non-representative poll of guests indicates that the majority will vote. However, some still do not know who to vote for. There are different answers to the question of whether they will vote for an independent candidate or for a party.
In addition to the grand approval of the new election law, which allows independent candidates for the first time, skepticism prevails that they will eventually be bought by the parties and, once in parliament, give up their independence. “Many are disillusioned with politics and keep their distance,” explains one of the possibly low turnout. But there may be a surprise, says another. If Shiite parties in the south lose a lot of votes and people vote for independent candidates, then they are the kings in the north. Then Mosul would have a powerful word in Baghdad. This optimism is contagious and startling. Because like no other city in Iraq, Mosul has been the scene of terror, religious extremism, destruction and destruction in recent years: first Al Qaeda, then IS.
Today the city in the Tigris is divided in two. The Left Bank, jokingly dubbed the “Rive gauche” after Paris, where the rich and famous live, has actually seen promising development in the last four years since the IS defeat. Since the houses were not completely destroyed, as on the other side of the river, they were quickly restored and new ones built. There are new restaurants, cafes and elegant shops around the university. Shopping malls are being built, as are hotels. Roads are newly paved and electricity is available almost 24 hours a day, which is rare in the rest of Iraq. In Baghdad, for example, there is a power outage every two hours and the generator has to be turned on. On the other side of the Tiger, the contrast program. Fierce fighting took place there for eight months. There was regular house-to-house fighting and IS was stuck. When the jihadists were defeated in July 2017, they left the scorched earth on their doorstep and left some remaining Mussolini to feel “never again”.
“In the beginning they did everything we could to trust them,” Jasmin Alrawy says of her time under IS. But then they showed their true colors, lowered wages, stopped women inside, ordered full veils, and banned alcohol and cigarettes. “When we wanted to leave, it was too late.” They left no one to leave Mosul and no one to enter, completely closing the city. When the battle for Mosul began, it became unbearable, the 42-year-old reports. “IS was inside the city, the Iraqi army and the PMF (People’s Mobilization Front) were outside. We were doubly surrounded.”
Alrawy is now running for parliament in Baghdad. She wants to give voice to those who were in the same situation as her, especially the widows, whose husbands fell victim to the bloody battle for Mosul. She would like to give women whose husbands were IS sympathizers or died as IS fighters a chance to reintegrate. “Of course we have to take a closer look to see to what extent their ideology is still anchored in people’s minds.” She has already developed a program to tackle the brainwashing of jihadists. If she manages to enter parliament, she will first pray and then try to organize a ministry for women.
Electronic counting system as a barrier
When polling stations close, there is a lot of speculation. A new electronic counting system should prevent inappropriate things and counterfeiting. In some polling stations, however, assistants could not afford it because they were not sufficiently trained. Now counted by hand. The very important question now is how did the old parties manage, if they can consolidate their power and continue to govern. During the quarterly election campaign, they did everything they could to defend their shaky positions, using dishonest methods to win over voters and direct voting in their direction.
Announcements of a boycott were numerous. Above all, the members of the protest movement wanted to stay away from the polling stations, even though they were the ones who with their mass protests of two years had demanded these early elections. They received the resignation of the government at the time and a new election law that now promises so much hope for a change in the party landscape. But their main demand, to seek responsibility for the deaths of more than 600 demonstrators, remained unfulfilled. Your fingers are pointing to Iran-backed Shiite militias. But it was they who ran for election. Young Iraqis in Mosul, however, are convinced that their generation can make a difference and that the future belongs to them, even if things sometimes go very slowly.