Located 110 kilometers west of Baghdad, the Sunni majority province which is home to 1.25 million people and covers 33% of Iraq’s land surface, witnessed extremely low voter turnout during the 2005 elections. Al-Qaeda and other armed organizations intimidated voters against casting a ballot with bomb threats against polling stations. Additionally, some Sunni parties boycotted the election in protest against the U.S. occupation. In the end, the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the three pillars of the Sunni Tawafuq Front, won all the available seats.
Today, however, Anbar is experiencing an extremely different election reality.
On the back of stable security conditions and Sunni engagement a heated electoral debate is raging and broad election participation is expected. Already, fierce campaigning is underway between the Islamic Party, the biggest Sunni party, and the new political fronts of the tribal organizations that emerged as fighting forces against al-Qaeda in 2006.
The Anbar Salvation Council headed by Sheikh Humaid al-Hayes is leading the political campaign against the incumbent Islamic Party, accusing it of adopting an exclusive policy in the province’s administration and of electoral fraud, including the bribing of voters, the illicit distribution of government land and property and of possible collusion with al-Qaeda.
The Islamic party, however, denies all these charges and attacks the Council as inefficient and politically immature. At the same time, the Islamic Party is well aware that the people of Anbar are more inclined to vote for tribes than political parties and is seeking to split tribes by attracting some tribal leaders into its camp.
Most significantly, the Islamic party succeeded in forming an alliance with Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, the leader of Iraq’s Awakening Conference.
Abu Risha officially announced his alliance with the National Gathering of Independents, directly linked to the Islamic Party. The two sides have created an Iraq Awakening and National Independents list, an alliance formed of “a mix of tribal and academic personalities, and an alliance expected to have a significant influence in the different cities of the province,” said Abu Risha. “The coalition seeks to reform the province’s security, economic and political processes.”
This move has provoked a split in Iraq’s Awakening Conference, with 40 tribal leaders walking away in protest at Abu Risha’s move. These leaders criticized Abu Risha’s step saying that it that it did not reflect broad consensus and that it weakened the tribal movement.
In October the Islamic party also succeeded in creating an Intellectuals and Tribes for Development coalition, uniting the Islamic Party, the gathering of Anbar’s Tribal Leaders and Intellectuals, Iraq’s People’s Conference and the Independent Tribal National Gathering.
These two tribal-political coalitions are considered the first of their kind in Anbar province. According to tribal leaders, the coalitions are not seeking more votes but want to overcome the continued conflicts between tribes and parties. However, it is clear that the Islamic party is relying on these coalitions to ensure electoral victory.
Meanwhile, tribal groups opposed to the Islamic Party have decided to join elections on one list. The Iraq’s Tribes list is formed of the Anbar Salvation Council, the Tomouh (Ambition) Party and the National Front for the Salvation of Iraq. The list includes the most prominent leaders of the Awakening Conference who withdrew following the dispute with Abu Risha.
Political observers say that the election will be a real test of the ability of these blocs to accept the power-sharing principle, especially as the Islamic party has dominated the province’s political process in recent years.
However, while election officials say that a large number of people are registering to vote, fears remain – as across the country – of a low turnout.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) official said that he expected a poor turnout. “Turnout in the province will be modest because people do not trust the Islamic Party, which has offered the province nothing of significance… Nor do they trust the tribes which are fighting each other and are mushrooming into a number of representatives,” said the official. “The Iraqi voter can no longer distinguish one from the other.”
Even as these fears remain however, the intense political competition between the Islamic party and tribal forces points to some success. Anbar has come a long way since the dark days of 2005 when the election passed unnoticed.