Go into the camp for displaced Iraqis at Amiriyat al-Samoud, southwest of Fallujah, and you would be forgiven for thinking you had left Iraq and entered another country, a country that is not preparing for elections at all. There are signs in the camp that Iraqis are just over a week away from one of the most important elections in their post-Saddam Hussein history but they are minor, especially compared to the banners, posters and flags you see all the way down both sides of the highway on the way here.
Thanks to the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State there were around 30 different camps established in this area, for displaced Iraqis, driven out of their homes by fighting and fear. Over half of the former residents of the camps have since returned home but there are still an estimated 3,500 people living here, according to the camp administrators.
The Iraqi people have learned a lesson. They won’t vote for corrupt leaders again. They are well aware of the people responsible for their suffering.
At the camp entrances there is a haphazard display of election posters, almost as if the politicians are trying to claim the camp’s residents. Inside the camps there’s almost nothing to show that elections will be held on May 12, save one or two posters glued to water tanks.
“There are more than 800 candidates in Anbar but you would never know it,” says Yassir al-Mahalawi, a 43-year-old originally from the Qaim district. “There are only a handful of posters here. The absence of any campaigning in our camps makes us think that there is a conspiracy going on and that there is a plan to deprive of us of our right to choose representatives,” he says angrily.
Al-Mahalawi has been into town to update his information on the electoral roll and to get his voting card- he lost his original documents when he fled the Islamic State, or IS, group.
“I know that as displaced people we are somehow not as important to the politicians but I am determined to vote for the right person and to remove the corrupt from office,” he added before expressing his derision for politicians who thought they would get the votes of those in the camps simply by placing a few posters on water tanks. “They don’t understand that we are only going to vote for leaders who will help us get out of our terrible situation. A few pictures won’t make a difference.”
Amir Khlaifawi is another long-time resident in the camp. He’s originally from the Anbar city of Ramadi but his return home is being prevented due to some security concerns about him. Nonetheless he too has his voting card. But, he says, he’s not sure of how he is going to get to a polling booth and he doesn’t have much information about potential candidates or parties.
“What we see inside the camps doesn’t indicate any great desire on the part of politicians to campaign here,” the 38-year-old notes. “If they were really sincere, they would have been rushing in here, like they did in 2014, in camps in northern Iraq. Back then their money and favours were reaching the displaced people’s camps even before they did!”
The election authorities at the Independent High Electoral Commission haven’t been much better, Khlaifawi continues. “We know there is a big budget to help mobilise voters and to educate them but nobody has made any effort here.”
In fact, IHEC recently released a statement outlining how displaced Iraqis could vote, as long as they had some form of identification. Special measures were being taken to make sure they could be included, no matter where they were now or where they had come from.
And, as one candidate for election in Ramadi points out, there are a number of different reasons why would-be-MPs don’t come out to the camps.
“Every vote counts,” says Musleh al-Jumaili, who is running for office in Ramadi. “But the reason there’s not much campaign presence in the displaced persons camps is because we are almost certain that most of the voters are just going to do what certain tribes tell them to do – especially in camps like Amiriyat al-Samoud and Amiriyat al-Fallujah.”
His opinion is based on informal polls and field visits, he says. Al-Jumaili says he thinks voters like Khlaifawi and al-Mahalawi have gotten the wrong idea and that displaced Iraqis are just as important as any other voter, perhaps even more important.
“We know that the Iraqi people have learned a lesson. They won’t vote for corrupt leaders again and that is especially true for the displaced people, who are well aware of the people responsible for their suffering,” al-Jumaili says. “They wouldn’t vote for those politicians even if they gave them gold.”