Voters in al-Anbar province in western Iraq are less enthusiastic about the national elections in March than they were at the last election, the province’s election commission has warned. It cited the failure of
“Some candidates who won elections have promised to provide the province with the services it needs and to improve the level of these services to reach distant areas,” said Dr Khaled Rajab, director of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) in Anbar. “They pledged to fight unemployment. From when they won until the present day, people have not seen any change in their lives and not one of the promises has been fulfilled. This has affected the [electoral] decisions of voters and their enthusiasm to vote.”
Voter apathy is apparent on the streets of the province itself. Ahmad al-Dulaimi, an Anbar resident whose poverty forced him to drop out of university in order to provide for his family, said he was unwilling to cast his vote in the forthcoming election.
“Thus far, nobody has provided us with the support we needed and in the future things will be no different,” he told Niqash. “After the martyrdom of my father two years ago, I applied for a job with a number of official institutions based on the priority given to martyrs’ families,” said al-Dulaimi, who now works for a food shop in Ramadi, a city in the east of Al-Anbar province. “But I never got any job. Why should I or my family go and vote?”
Another threat to turnout is instability. Early in 2009, the improved security situation in the province led more voters to head for the polls and turnout reached 40 per cent. The number of women voters also increased slightly; women participation had been banned in the 2005 elections in the province.
But growing instability and danger has led many residents to question whether the elections can really achieve anything useful.
“We were expecting that the local government would change conditions in the province, but it did nothing new,” said Abu Ghazwan , a 39-year-old government employee who lives in Ramadi city. “We have seen no positive changes and services, instead of improving, have got even worse.” Ghazwan also cited the increase in fatal ‘terrorist’ attacks, “all of which happened when the local government had been formed yet was unable to provide people with any protection.”
Al-Anbar, which takes up almost a third of Iraq’s landmass, dominates the west of the country. The province has a Sunni majority and offered strong resistance to US troops, especially in the city of Fallujah, which was controlled by al-Qaeda. Later, in 2007, local tribal forces (al-Sahwat) were able to expel al-Qaeda members from the province.
But the improved security conditions have been partially undermined more recently by a rise in the number of terrorist attacks and suicide and car bombings. These attacks are already affecting residents’ eagerness to cast their vote.
“There is no doubt that the deteriorating security situation has directly affected voters,” said Bahaa Shaker, director of the Solidarity Organization for Sports and Youth, an Iraqi NPO working to raise voter awareness. “Moreover, people did not feel that any concrete and tangible positive steps were taken by the province’s officials. Thus it’s no surprise that people will be reluctant to participate in the upcoming elections.”
But the government is striking a more bullish note, anticipating an improvement in voter intentions as election day looms.
“Political entities have become known to people and their goals have now become clear,” said Fuad Jatab, Deputy Governor in the province. “Moreover, the political process has become more mature and transparent. There is a sweeping will among all the groupings of the Iraqi people to build a united Iraq from its north to its south and from its east to its west,” said Jatab, who is expecting voter turnout to be higher than in the last election.
Moreover, some younger voters see elections as a possible ticket to a job – or at least as the only one they have. “Elections play a significant role in ending unemployment and administrative corruption rampant in the state institutions,” said Ibtisam Ayid, a 25-year-old university graduate. “It could be an opening for renewed hope for newly graduating students in finding job opportunities. There is no other possible way,” Ibtisam
But there are less comforting reasons voter numbers may go up too, according to Abu Sufian, a lawyer from Ramadi. “It is important that people vote in these elections, not because they are convinced of the existing political entities and parties’ programs but out of fear of fraud and tampering ballot papers,” he said.
Pushing the ballot out
Attempts are now underway across al-Anbar to encourage key tribal and community leaders to lead the way by taking part in the elections.
"I went to one of the tribal leaders in the region and convinced him to participate,” said Dr. Khaled Rajab, Director of IHEC’s Office in Anbar. “I explained to everyone the importance of elections to protect their votes from being manipulated. If one candidate failed to fulfill his promises, it doesn’t follow that no candidates will fulfill theirs. Everybody should cooperate to ensure the success of the electoral process,” he added.
This round’s pre-election promises in al-Anbar include combating unemployment, improving services levels in the city and managing the security situation better. They are little changed from the last election.
But Naji al-Assaf, one of the province’s tribal leaders, said that he will encourage all members of his tribe to participate in the elections. “Every person and tribal sheikh, his sons and his tribe should participate to prevent fraud and manipulation of elections’ results. We should elect our representative and not allow the political entities who do not deserve to join the political process the opportunity to win,” he added.
Although many voters in Anbar harbour private doubts over whether candidates in the up-coming elections will fulfill their electoral promises, some told Niqash that they will participate in order to prevent certain candidates from using people’s votes to reach power.
“Winning candidates should fulfill their promises and should be responsible for their acts,” said Umar al-Rawi, a University graduate student. “A true believer fulfills his promises. The people of Anbar no longer believe in promises, and so candidates should respect people’s feelings and not use them to achieve their own interests.”