Thursday, March 4, 2010

Change comes to Sulimaniyah

On the hillside above Sulimaniyah, there is a large luminous number. Picked out in white lights, ‘372’ sits on the hill at night like a strange pun on the white horses more familiar to the British. A red tick occasionally flashes on and off, just to the left.

When I first saw this from my top-floor apartment, I was utterly mystified. My colleague explained: it’s the number of the candidate list for the ruling Kurdistani Alliance in Iraq’s upcoming election. It is an open list election, where voters can vote for one of the numbered lists (effectively voting for just a party) or they can vote for a single candidate from within a list. Taking an innovative approach to campaigning, the alliance is literally drawing on the landscape the tick that it wants Iraqis to place this coming Sunday.

The scale of this advert speaks volumes about the power of the PUK in this Iraqi Kurdish city, where there is a fierce and sometimes dangerous battle going on between the Kurdistan region’s ruling coalition, of which PUK is a large part, and the new opposition Change party, or Gorran in Kurdish. No less so, the fact that Mr or Ms 372 has placed a light show on the exact opposite side of the city to the Change headquarters, known as Gorran Hill or simply the Hill. In this behemoth Change runs its media empire – the party was founded by a media boss who is now using his TV, radio and print outlets to maximum effect. Facing up to the Hill across the bowl where Sulimaniyah nestles, the PUK list number expresses political rivalry in the very hills that the Kurds of this area so identify with.

There is also some smaller scale imagery to be had around town. Because of the high number of candidates on the lists, campaign posters are fairly uniform to give maximum space to the candidate’s identifying number and a photo of him or her looking varyingly dignified, supercilious, scornful or terrified. Another colleague’s favourite is a pale man who, he says, look like his mum made him stand. But there is little space for party symbols, so the politicians of Sulimaniyah instead use party flags, which adorn every street.

The flags of the ruling coalition feature symbols of power, force and conservatism: a white horse with mane streaming, a hand holding up a red flower. Such symbols are quite beautiful yet have a traditional look: no one has paid much attention to rebranding for some time. Change, on the other hand, has the advantage of both its infancy and, presumably, a ready set of graphic designers at its newspaper offices. The flags have a more rounded, friendly and up to date look, and feature a yellow candle on a dark blue background. The message is clear: hope.

More than one cartoon in the Kurdish press has linked Change’s language and rhetoric with the Obama campaign since the party emerged in 2008. And the Change movement’s messages seem to be rallying a large and fervent support base, especially among youth. Change is able to position itself, as Obama did, as the outside candidate, refreshingly different from the established parties which have fought over and tightly controlled the Kurdish region for two decades. This is especially the case in Sulimaniyah, where the security forces are widely thought to be controlled by the PUK and have frequently been accused of attacks on Change activists in the run-up to the election.

As we saw in the US in 2008, imagery matters, whether it is visual or embodied in words - and the themes of change and hope make a powerful combination. On a wall next to my local supermarket is a mural proclaiming in English ‘we are going towards light’, and it does seem that Change’s candle has captured imaginations.

Will it bring them victory? I’m not sure. I witnessed the fraught Pakistani election in 2008, and was struck by the simplicity and accessibility of the symbol of former President Musharraf’s party, an elegant line drawing of a bicycle heading off into the distance. It represented everyday, easy social mobility – almost everyone can afford a bicycle, it said, and with our bicycle you can speed towards great things. But of course, this great imagery did little for the party of the disgraced military dictator, which plummeted in the poll.

Gorran seems to have a wave of support just as big as in last year’s elections, its first, when it won a good chunk of the vote. If it makes further gains this time, and especially if it wins a majority, the party will have to show its fans that it can back up its images – that it can really deliver change as well as hope.

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