MOSUL, Iraq, May 3, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Election posters plastered on the bullet-riddled wall of a girls’ school in the Old City of Iraq’s Mosul pledge a better future for those casting their ballot at a nationwide vote.
But the scenes of devastation that surround them almost 10 months after the Islamic State group (IS) was forced from the country’s second city belie the hopeful claims.
“Iraq is moving forward,” reads an advert for candidate Laith Ahmad Hassan, standing for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance at the May 12 parliamentary poll.
“We will continue the process of reconstruction and offer the benefits to the people,” says a poster for contender Fares Sheikh Sadik from a Kurdish party.
The scars left from the months of gruelling fighting it took to oust IS from Mosul — the Iraqi capital of their so-called “caliphate” — are still visible all over the city.
Streets lie in ruins, decomposing bodies rot beneath rubble and unexploded ordnance poses a constant threat.
Despite this backdrop of devastation, candidates are trying their hardest to drum up support.
They have staged sporting and cultural events, handed out free cake to passersby and hired convoys of cars to cruise around the city blasting out music.
The prize is an attractive one and 938 hopefuls are vying for power in Nineveh province, where some 80 percent of the 2.3 million registered voters live in Mosul.
Thirty-four seats, including three for minority groups, are up for grabs in this melting pot region that has seen ethnic and religious differences often fuel conflict.
– ‘National duty’ –
While those on the campaign trail are doing their best to sell themselves and their positive vision of Iraq, the people they are trying to convince seem split about the vote.
Mechanic Abu Fayez, 41, has been waiting for hours to receive his voter registration card.
“After the liberation of Mosul it is a national duty to vote to change our lives and not just take advantage of the day off as during previous elections to have a holiday,” he tells AFP, his hands and trousers stained with oil.
“We must… elect people who will genuinely represent us and obtain compensation for the material and moral damage we suffered.”
After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mosul — a majority Sunni Muslim city with Kurdish and Christian minorities — became a stronghold for Al-Qaeda and supporters of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein.
At the last elections in 2014 — just before IS seized control — only 50 percent of voters in the city cast their ballots, with many put off by threats made by jihadists.
This time around unemployed Ammar Raad says he will skip the elections again.
“I came to collect my voter card so that others can’t use it illegally, but I am going to destroy it,” he says, standing in front of his wrecked house.
“I turned down 75,000 dinars ($60, 50 euros) that one candidate offered me to vote for him. No one inspires my confidence.”
This lack of trust in the politicians is palpable, as many consider that they simply fled when IS swept into Mosul in June 2014 and abandoned residents to their fate.
– ‘New alliances’ –
“I am going to vote, but to kick out the corrupt and the old faces who have done nothing,” says Abu Ahmad, a 55-year-old retiree.
As a sign of the upheavals in the province since the last vote, this time round some 75 percent of candidates are newcomers and the traditional Sunni parties have changed their names to avoid past associations.
“There is the risk that there could be a political earthquake that could shake up the province,” says political analyst Hamed Ali.
“New alliances supported by the security forces on the ground will create a new reality.”
The victory over IS — which Abadi declared across Iraq in December — was achieved with the help of paramilitary groups fighting alongside the armed forces as part of the Hashed al-Shaabi Popular Mobilisation Units.
The groups — who followed a call from top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani to battle IS — are still entrenched around the region and retain major clout.
“The militias are omnipresent in the province and control the security, and this favours the parties linked to them,” says lawmaker Farah Sarraj, who is running for the secular National Alliance of Vice President Ayad Allawi.
Sarraj said that with Mosul and the surrounding region still struggling to recover she also has fears that the vote could be rigged.
“Only some 20 percent of those displaced have returned to Mosul and the names of thousands of martyrs and disappeared are still on voting lists,” she says.
“It is the same situation with many members of IS who have now fled the country.”