Iraqis are voting in a general election that many said they would boycott, having lost faith in the democratic system brought in by the US-led invasion of 2003.
Sunday’s vote was originally scheduled for next year but was brought forward in response to a popular uprising in the capital Baghdad and southern provinces in late 2019.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest endemic corruption, poor services and rising unemployment. They were met with deadly force by security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas. More than 600 people were killed and thousands of others wounded within just a few months.
Although authorities called the early elections, the death toll and the heavy-handed crackdown prompted many young activists and demonstrators who took part in the protests to later call for a boycott of the polls.
A series of kidnappings and targeted assassinations that killed more than 35 people has further discouraged many from taking part.
A total of 3,420 candidates are vying for 329 seats in the parliamentary elections, which will be the fifth held since the fall of Saddam Hussein after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
More than 250,000 security personnel across the country are tasked with protecting the vote. Soldiers, police and anti-terrorism forces fanned out and deployed outside polling stations, some of which were ringed by barbed wire. Voters were patted down and searched before going in to cast their ballots.
The election is the first since the fall of Saddam to proceed without a curfew in place, reflecting the significantly improved security situation in the country following the defeat of ISIL (ISIS) in 2017. Previous votes were marred by fighting and deadly bomb attacks.
In another first, Sunday’s election is taking place under a new election law that divides Iraq into smaller constituencies – another demand of the activists who took part in the 2019 protests – and allows for more independent candidates.
A UN Security Council resolution adopted earlier this year authorised an expanded team to monitor the elections. There will be up to 600 international observers in place, including 150 from the United Nations.
Iraq is also for the first time introducing biometric cards for voters. To prevent abuse of electronic voter cards, they will be disabled for 72 hours after each person votes, to avoid double voting.
But despite all these measures, claims of vote-buying, intimidation and manipulation have persisted.
The head of Iraq’s electoral commission has said that initial election results will be announced within 24 hours of polls closing.