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 semiautonomous 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 running for office in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
Iraqis on the street typically are cynical about the government they have had since the U.S.-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 did not appear on the ballots; 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 coming elections.
"It's a stampede," said Essam Manea, 46, of Baghdad. "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 were more optimistic about what could 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, 25, of Anabar.
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 has emerged since Saddam Hussein fell. For the last few weeks, at Friday prayers, Sunni religious leaders have urged people to vote to make their voices heard.
In another twist, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr isn't backing a party in the provincial races. He has indicated 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 coming elections 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.