With fighting continuing in Iraq’s western Anbar province for the third straight month many are questioning how elections are to be held there in April 2014. The Election Commission is moving ahead with its work and attempting to distribute voting cards within the governorate, while coming up with new schemes on how to deal with the hundreds of thousands that are displaced both within and without Anbar. At the same time, politicians are flip flopping on whether the process will work and be legitimate, while some within Anbar are actively encouraging people not to vote. It appears that Baghdad will push ahead with the vote despite the many difficulties that lay ahead with registration, intimidation, and the possibility of disenfranchisement.
The Election Commission and political parties are struggling with how to address the public in Anbar, and make sure they vote given the continuing insecurity. Anbar has 15 parliamentary seats up for grab, and roughly 900,000 eligible voters. One major problem is that up to one-third of the population has been displaced due to the fighting and moved into neighboring Kurdistan, Salahaddin, Kirkuk, Diyala, Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Ninewa, and safer parts of the governorate such as Ana, Haditha, Rawa, and Hit. The Commission has to not only register these people, but also distribute the new electronic voting cards to them. In mid-March it was reported that only 30% of Anbar was safe for election workers to move around in, and that March 27 only 17% of cards had been handed out. Then on March 30 it was reported that the Commission was no longer requiring the displaced to use the cards because it was too difficult to get them out to the public. It said a new system would be created to assure refugees that they could vote. Another major difficulty is the fact that since voters have been dispersed across so many provinces it will make it nearly impossible for the candidates’ campaigns to reach all of them. A lawmaker from Parliament Speaker Osama Nujafi’s Mutahidun for example told Al Mada that candidates would have to travel across 9 different governorates, requiring huge amounts of time and money that they may not have. At least those areas are safe, because Fallujah and parts of Ramadi are not. Those two urban centers along with many of the surrounding villages are seeing constant gunfire, bombings, and government shelling and air strikes making it impossible for the Election Commission and political parties to gain entrance to them. That means thousands of voters in those areas will not be allowed to vote because they won’t be registered. Together these two issues make it apparent that a large number of Anbaris will not be able to vote, and that the political lists will have a very hard time getting across their messages to them.
That has led many to question whether the voting will be legitimate or not. Parliamentarian Ibrahim al-Mutlaq from the Iraqi National Movement questioned how people were supposed to get to the polls given the security situation in Anbar. A Mutahidun lawmaker accused the government of purposely trying to keep voting down in the province by launching the security operation there when it did and arresting people, while a member of Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National List claimed that there would be massive fraud due to the large number of displaced voters. Members of the Anbar council have also gone back and forth on whether the voting could even take place. In early March the deputy head of the council Faleh Issawi said that only 35% of the governorate was safe to hold the elections. Later in the month he listed all the towns and cities that would be off limits because they were controlled by insurgents including Fallujah, Garma, Saqlawiya, Nasaf, parts of Amiriya Fallujah, Zawba, and Niamiya. At the same time, Governor Ahmed Dulaimi Diab and the council started talking about the voting happening on schedule. March 27 for instance, Al Mada reported that members of the council told it that most of the province was secure, that the security forces could protect the voting process, and only that Fallujah was a problem. Many of these parties are nervous because Anbar is a major part of their base, and the uncertainty over the elections makes it unclear who will get the votes.
Not only will casting ballots be difficult at best for Anbaris in April, but there are elements attempting to convince them not to go to the polls. Some clerics have issued fatwas against the elections, and several sheikhs have said that the voting will be illegitimate. Militants have threatened election centers, and some candidates have pulled out due to the insecurity. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has also started a campaign to warn people not to cast their ballots. While Anbar hasn’t been mentioned in that effort yet it’s likely that they telling people not to participate there as well since the group has opposed all of Iraq’s elections. Finally, one of the reasons why Anbar has turned so violent is because many there have given up on politics as a way to have their demands expressed and their needs met. Given that high level of cynicism and anger at the government it was an open question about how many would turn out even if there wasn’t fighting going on there.
The authorities are doing their best to prepare Anbar for next months voting, but it’s not clear how many will be able to vote, and how many will want to. The Election Commission is attempting to prepare the public within Anbar, while setting up a special system for the displaced that will ease the process. How candidates will reach out to the dispersed population, how the voting will go off with an active insurgency going on, and how many people will turn out are all open questions. It appears that the government will count any level of turnout as a success given the circumstances and just move ahead with counting ballots, declaring winners, and then leaving the parties to negotiate a new government afterward.
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