The “Anbar crisis” was the most prominent issue for Iraqi Shiite voters in the April 30 elections, and was also a key indicator about the sentiment of Sunni voters. This appeared in the electoral discourse of nearly all blocs, especially the bloc of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the State of Law Coalition, which built its electoral campaign on the Anbar crisis.
That the Anbar battles were at the heart of electoral campaigning was not surprising. The continuing Sunni protests of more than a year, their development into bloody clashes with the Iraqi army, Iraqi soldiers being killed at the hands of militants belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and ISIS cutting off the waters of the Euphrates all seemed to be determining factors for the Iraqi elections.
In the Shiite arena, there was no major split between the political forces, practically, on the position toward the crisis. All major forces supported the Iraqi army and condemned the practices of ISIS. But that was not enough to prevent the crisis from playing out in favor of Maliki’s electoral coalition.
Between March 31 and April 30, Maliki gave dozens of speeches, held many meetings and visited many Iraqi cities. All his speeches, without exception, focused on the “anti-terrorism” electoral theme. Statements by members of his electoral bloc and their electoral campaign were similar, and hinted that the Shiites’ partners are not supporting the army enough in its military operations and that the Sunni partners are allied in one way or another with the terrorists.
That discourse formed the bulk of the messages directed toward Iraqi Shiites, who found that protecting themselves from the “terrorism invasion” could only be done by a strong leader capable of confrontation. The Shiite forces competing with Maliki, such as the Ahrar Current led by Muqtada al-Sadr and the Citizen Current led by Ammar al-Hakim, tried to blame Maliki personally for the mistakes that led to the Anbar crisis. They criticized how Maliki managed the fighting and proposed peaceful solutions and initiatives to resolve the crisis.
But voters were not ready to hear explanations about the causes of the fighting in Anbar. Voters were facing the reality that tens of thousands of soldiers, mostly Shiites, in the midst of a grinding war, were being killed by gunmen and that life in the Shiite areas was being threatened because gunmen had taken control of the Fallujah dam and cut off the waters of the Euphrates.
These pressures shaped the choices of many Shiite voters. Maliki effectively used the Anbar crisis in the election. He wasted no opportunity to use the Anbar crisis to differentiate himself from other Shiite forces regarding the best policy to deal with the crisis. He used all available means to turn the Anbar crisis into an existential issue for the public. The closure of the Euphrates gave Maliki a big impetus to deepen the collective sense of danger. The key slogan in Maliki’s electoral campaign was “together to eliminate terrorism.”
In turn, the Sunni forces used the Anbar crisis for electoral purposes. They presented themselves as the defenders of Iraqi Sunnis in defense against Maliki’s tendency to encircle the Sunnis and punish them. All Sunni forces campaigned by warning that if Maliki wins a third term, then more Sunni cities will experience what happened in Anbar.
While the final election results are not yet known, it is probably safe to say that Maliki is the biggest winner electorally as a result of the Anbar crisis, and that his coalition is likely to win more seats than all other Iraqi forces. The challenge represented by the Anbar crisis was greater than the ability of rival forces to use it to undermine Maliki’s popularity in the Shiite street, at least.
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