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Candidates lose life savings

Thousands of Iraqis, lured by $25,000 monthly salaries and staff allowances, ran in the parliamentary elections. In some cases they spent all they had on campaign materials, and are broke.

BAGHDAD // Thousands of Iraqis who contested the election, hoping to seize the power and wealth that a parliamentary seat brings, are now having to come to terms with the at-times high price of failure.

While the country awaits final results of its historic ballot, still unsure of exactly who has won, a majority of would-be MPs already know with certainty that they have lost. And some have lost more than merely an election campaign, gambling their life savings and more on their effort to become a professional politician. For Jafaar al Qada, a 58-year-old resident of Baghdad's Karrada neighbourhood, his wife's bid for a parliamentary seat in the capital ended in financial ruin and divorce.

"She promised that she would win and so we sold the house to pay for the campaign," he said, still so bitterly upset that he refused to mention his wife's first name. "We spent $130,000 [Dh477,000] on posters, adverts, gifts, parties and food. Everyone we met promised to vote for her." In the end, only 14 people cast their votes in her support. "It has brought shame on us; it has destroyed our lives," Mr al Qada said. "I told her, if you lose, we'll get divorced, and that is what has happened. We have five children, their lives are in tatters, I'm ruined, I have no money, it has all been lost."

It is that shame that led many losing candidates to refuse interviews with The National. But those closest to the candidates, including doctors and others, spoke about the effect of the elections on the defeated. These candidates have similar stories, according to Ali al Gharley, a doctor running a medical clinic in New Baghdad. Since the election results started to trickle out, he has seen more than a dozen patients all of whom were prospective MPs, all of whom lost and suffered as a result.

"Most of the cases are heart problems, high blood pressure and so on, from stress," Dr Gharley said. "But I have one case of a parliamentary nominee who had a mental breakdown because of his failure to get elected. He tried to kill himself and is in despair if he sees or hears any news about the election." Family members told Dr Gharley his patient had spent $170,000 running his unsuccessful campaign for parliament. "People get their hopes up, they take a big gamble on success in every way and they are not in a position to cope with failure," he said. "They think an expensive campaign is an investment in the future; it is not, it is a gamble."

About 6,500 candidates registered for the March 7 poll, fighting for 325 seats - a ratio of 20 hopeful lawmakers for each available space in parliament. Those long odds against success failed to deter large numbers of complete unknowns and tiny independent parties from trying their luck. While all the campaign rhetoric suggested selfless motivations and a simple desire to serve their fellow countrymen, some of the hopefuls surely had at least half an eye on more personal gains.

Life as an Iraqi MP brings with it numerous perks and privileges. For starters, a monthly payment of $25,000 in salary and staff allowances - earnings far in excess of anything most Iraqis could ever command. In addition to that, MPs enjoy a pension worth 80 per cent of their final salary for one decade after leaving office, plus the gift of a large plot of land to help ease their way into post-political life.

Sitting MPs can also claim tens of thousands of dollars in cheap loans, get diplomatic passports and, most lucratively, win access to business opportunities. Iraq's last batch of parliamentarians, elected in 2005, did little to enhance their reputation as servants of the people; scores of lawmakers frequently failed to show up for debates on crucial legislation. Some apparently spent more time in Beirut, London or Dubai than in Baghdad. Understandable perhaps, but not something ordinary Iraqis, suffering from violence, poverty and corruption, were very happy about.

The icing on the cake came in November when, with election laws deadlocked and long-delayed, MPs found the time to vote through a new lavish package of perks for themselves. The election rules were only approved at a later date, leaving little time for officials to overcome the practical difficulties of running a ballot, a fact they say explains the current chaos in counting votes. Such incidents have helped create a strong grassroots impression that, rather than devote themselves to crucial legal issues in a war-torn country, Iraq's MPs are living on easy street.

In Baghdad's Karrada nighbourhood, the area's police station has seen a surge in complaints filed by irate campaign donors, according to Capt Mohammad Ali, an officer based there. "Some of the people running for parliament have borrowed a lot of money to pay for their campaigns and when they lose, they can't pay it back," he said. "We have a case where someone owes more than $150,000 to various lenders."

Capt Ali said efforts to track down high-spending politicians had run into trouble. "The truth is, many of them seem to have left the country rather than pay the money back." It is a situation that has left him, as well as those lending out cash, furious. "If these thieves wanted to run the country, I suppose we must be happy they didn't get elected because they would have stolen even more from us all if they had won," he said.

Students at Mustansariya University in the Iraqi capital have also complained of suffering as a result of the election. According to Abbas Urdani, a history undergraduate, one of his professors stood for parliament and insisted students get their families to support him. "He didn't win and blames us all for not getting enough votes; he's so angry that it is affecting our studies, it's making classes impossible. He seems to want us to fail our degrees as he failed in the election."

Such problems, according to Dr Gharley, the Baghdad physician treating nominee patients, underlined a need for new election laws. "Democracy is new here and people don't understand it, they think it's an easy thing to get elected, or they see it as a business," he said. "They are naive, they have no idea about the process and they risk everything and lose everything. "We need to stop a repeat of this. We need a system that educates those who want to enter politics so they know exactly what they are getting into."


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