BAGHDAD — Iraqi voters next month will see 14,500 candidates vie for 440 open seats on provincial councils, an outpouring of interest in a new phase of Iraqi self-government that could make for a baffling ballot.
The Jan. 31 poll will be the first in a series of votes in Iraq next year that include elections in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, a national referendum on the new U.S.-Iraq security pact and nationwide parliamentary elections.
The provincial council elections will bring new blood into local governing bodies that were filled by political blocs in Iraq's 2005 elections. They'll also give national parties a local toehold to advance their agendas.
That's why posters of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki blanket Baghdad's streets even though he isn't running for office next month. The banners are meant to build support for his Dawa party.
An average of 33 candidates is running for each position, a ratio that some candidates say shows enthusiasm for a democratic Iraq.
"The democratic experiment in the new Iraq is recently born, so we find a lot of people who are trying to enter this democratic process," said Ammar Mohammed Chayed, 35, a doctor who's running for office in the Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
Iraqis on the street typically are cynical about the government they've had since the American-led invasion in 2003.
They viewed the initial Iraqi Governing Council, which advised the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority, as powerless.
That perception began to change with national elections in 2005, when voters selected slates to represent them. Candidates' names didn't appear on the ballots because it was too dangerous for them to identify themselves.
This time, the candidates' names will be on the ballots, though voters can opt to check boxes for political parties instead. If they choose the latter, the party will select whom it puts in office.
Iraqis often vent about their current government, accusing their elected leaders of acting in self-interest and pointing to occasional corruption probes as evidence of wrongdoing. That skepticism shades some views of the upcoming elections.
"It's a stampede," said Essam Manea, 46, a Baghdad resident. "Not because of their love of country, but for their love of money and for corruption."
He was at a coffee shop Wednesday as a few customers made fun of how the candidates are trying to get elected.
"It is so silly," said Heider Khadim, 35, an accountant. "We never saw them in our lives, and now, for example, one party showed up to give out soccer balls and dresses. Another party came to us last week to offer bus trips to visit shrines in Samarra and Najaf."
Others are more optimistic about the changes that can come from the election.
"I hope (the new candidates) would be better than the current ones because we have not seen any real change in our lives," said Mohammed al Esawi, a 25-year-old Anbar resident. "It is a new process in Iraq, and that's why we see a huge number of candidates in the province. I hope that the winners would be the elite of those candidates."
Aside from naming candidates on ballots, next year's elections will differ from the 2005 parliamentary vote in another important way: Sunni Muslims plan to participate.
Many Sunnis boycotted the previous election to protest their diminished role in the Shiite Muslim-led government that's emerged since Saddam Hussein fell. Sunni religious leaders have urged people to vote for the past few weeks at Friday prayers in order to make their voices heard.
In another twist, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr isn't backing a party in the provincial races. He's indicated that he might support certain individuals, though he hasn't yet named them.
His party was an essential part of the coalition that selected Maliki as prime minister in 2006, but its influence has waned, partly because of Maliki's efforts to curb the power of Sadr's militia.
Chayed, the candidate from Anbar, sees the upcoming races as pivotal for Iraq. He struck a tone reminiscent of President-elect Barack Obama's campaign this fall when he described what's at stake.
"Change is important, but hope is more important," he said. "We believe that we as Iraqis can get the strong, honest, faithful, loyal people to achieve responsibility in the next period."
(Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent in Baghdad. Special correspondents Qassim Najaf in Najaf and Jamal Naji in Fallujah contributed to this report.)
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