Iraq is rife with allegations of vote buying a week ahead of the country's national elections. A number of localities have reported that representatives of national political parties are offering impoverished Iraqis various sums of money in exchange for their vote. Reports have 'election agents' from various parties popping up all over the country to buy the votes of those who either need the money or are disillusioned with the country's political system and willing to sell their vote to the highest bidder."There are many political parties in Iraq now trying to bribe people to vote for them," Dr Haitham Numan, Director of the Asharq Research Center in Baghdad told The Media Line. "It's especially common in the rural areas in the south where the religious parties have been giving 100 dinars to each family promising to vote for their party. A number of political leaders have also been giving lots of money to tribal leaders to push them and their followers to vote in a particular way.""It's a new phenomenon, unique to this election," he said. "In the last election the politicians did not realize that giving money was a great way for the parties to gain votes. Now there are lots of Iraqis who have no job, need money and would otherwise not vote. So the parties figured it's cheaper to just buy off poor people than to campaign." 325 seats are up for grabs in Iraq's parliament, the Council of Representatives, which once formed will elect the country's prime minister and president. Dr Joost R. Hiltermann, Deputy Program Director at the Middle East and North Africa International Crisis Group, said the degree to which Iraqi political candidates would engage in fraud remained to be seen. “We have to wait and see whether the upcoming elections will be free, fair, inclusive and transparent,” he told The Media Line. “With each of the previous elections there was fraud but it was not on a massive scale and the election [result] was accepted by those who participated." Dr Hiltermann argued that while the vote may be marred by various types of fraud, the participation of a diverse spectrum of political parties was a good sign. “We have to remember that in 2005 some groups boycotted the election," he said, referring to Iraq's 2006 elections, which a number of Sunni groups boycotted. "Obviously they did not accept the results. But those who participated in any of the elections that have taken place in the past five years did embrace the result and that is a very important indicator.” "What is interesting in this election is that it’s an open list system,” Dr Hiltermann said, explaining that the election is less issue-focused than a typical Western election. “The voters will be able to vote for individual candidates, who are not necessarily the ones that the leaders of these parties would want to see in places of power." "This is an election between personalities," he said. "It's a wide open election and it's very hard to make predictions. Whomever rises to the top will set the tone of the new Iraq.""We will have to see if those elected do what the Iraqi people want," Dr Hiltermann added, "which is to have security, jobs and access to essential services.” Sectarian tensions have been high ahead of the elections after 145candidates were banned from the poll due to alleged ties to the Ba'athparty, which ruled Iraq under former President Saddam Hussein. Whilethe ban affects more Shi'ites than Sunnis, many of the bannedpoliticians have depicted the move as orchestrated by Iran in order toinstall Shi'ite dominated government that would be obedient to itsinterests. The elections were very nearly boycotted by a majorparty after Saleh al-Mutlaq, who heads the second-largest Sunni bloc inparliament, was personally banned from the poll by Iraq's Justice andAccountability Commission. Al-Mutlaq eventually backed down fromthreats to boycott the elections, which at the time sparked fears thathis party would pull out and lead to a unilateral Sunni boycott of thepoll. Al-Mutlaq leads the National Dialogue Front, which has 11 seatsin the outgoing legislature.