BAGHDAD — In the campaign posters that cover Baghdad's public surfaces like wallpaper, Iraqi candidates project an array of demeanors and identities that they hope will sway voters in next month's parliamentary elections.
Some grin; others scowl. They point accusingly at unseen enemies or extend open arms in a show of unity. Men appear in tailored suits to suggest cosmopolitanism, in tribal robes to appeal to more traditional Iraqis and in clerical turbans as a reminder to the devout. Thanks to a government quota, one in four candidates is female, and they reflect the broad spectrum of Iraqi womanhood, from lipstick and highlighted hair to bare faces framed by flowing black cloaks.
"If votes were counted according to the amount of time spent staring at the posters, she would definitely win," said Bilal Nouri, a supermarket worker in Fallujah who gazed longingly at a poster of an attractive female candidate.
Analyzing, judging and — especially — mocking all this posturing has become a national pastime as Iraqis prepare to vote on March 7. Not only a way to needle the political elite, it's much safer for ordinary Iraqis to make fun of the 6,000 or so candidates than it is for them to voice their opinions on the issues: securing the nation, religious vs. nationalist agendas, rampant corruption, the lack of basic services and a dismal economy.
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"Everyone puts his photo up with a very nice motto, but they're already in the government, so why haven't they implemented these mottos? It's all lies," said Ali Falah, 27, who's unemployed. "I was walking with my wife, and raindrops were falling on posters for a cleric. I told her, 'Wipe his face, he's crying.' She wiped his face with the edge of her sleeve until it was smudged."
Cheeky opponents of Ahmad Chalabi, the onetime U.S. ally and perennially controversial Shiite Muslim politician, are sending out e-mails of a faux poster with Chalabi's face superimposed on an ad for the classic 1940 film, "The Thief of Baghdad."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, also a Shiite, is another frequent target. One of Maliki's campaign posters shows him standing shoulder to shoulder with the education minister. The men are wearing matching gray suits. The joke on the street: "Which one's the groom?"
Amira Faris, a 40-year-old biologist, and her sister Khuloud Faris, 41, a psychologist, strolled together past a long wall plastered with campaign posters in the middle-class Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada. They debated the candidates the entire way, with one sister praising a cleric and the other vowing to vote secular.
"These posters are an advertisement of their character," Amira Faris said.
"Yes," her sister Khuloud agreed, "I saw one candidate in Karrada with posters of her hair uncovered, and then I saw her posters in Sadr City, and of course her hair was covered. That's cheating!"
"The real question is: What are they going to do for the people? Do they have the ability to change our reality?" Amira asked.
As Iraq progresses on the rocky path that may or may not lead to real democracy, its political campaigns have become more sophisticated. The wealthiest candidates have hired expensive Western image consultants and public relations firms. Millions of dollars have gone into slick TV spots, glossy brochures, eye-catching posters and relentless text messaging, Facebook and e-mail campaigning.
There are more stringent rules this time around, too, such as bans on using sectarian slogans, depicting religious authorities who aren't on the ballot and putting campaign materials on mosques or government buildings. No glue or spray paint is allowed, and fines double if an offending poster isn't removed within three days, according to rules set forth by Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission.
"It's more civilized than the last elections," said Haider al Musawi, a political analyst at a Baghdad-based research center for sociology and human development. "In previous years, they put posters even on the walls of private homes. This (change) is because of the fines and maybe because the people and the candidates are getting more familiar with elections."
Musawi said that voters are so frustrated with the current crop of candidates — the most viable among them are widely blamed for Iraq's years of sectarian warfare — that it could be interpreted as an act of rebellion against religious parties for voters to mark their ballots for "a pretty face."
For example, an accomplished, Ph.D.-holding female candidate appears on posters throughout Baghdad with the slogan: "You want change? My hand in your hand."
"For sure, I'll put my hand in yours!" exclaimed Haider Mahmoud, a 33-year-old construction worker whose eagerness wasn't related to the candidate's platform.
(McClatchy special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy and Laith Hammoudi contributed.)
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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq