Polls opened at 7am on Saturday and closed at 6pm (04:00 to 15:00 GMT). While the independent body overseeing the election projected a high turnout among the 24.5 million registered voters, participation appeared to be low.
The low turnout was partly blamed on a 24-hour curfew put in place by the government since midnight, which was partially lifted by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi later in the day.
Few foresee a dramatic government shake-up given the country’s sectarian divides, but the balloting is expected to be a referendum on al-Abadi’s tenure and his pledge to be more inclusive of Iraq’s Sunni minority.
Corruption, security, poverty, Iran’s influence and the future of US forces currently in Iraq are other issues that have dominated the run-up to the election.
A total of 6,990 candidates from 87 parties are competing against one another, with nearly 2,011 female candidates who are guaranteed 25 percent, or 83, of the seats. Nine seats will be allocated to minorities.
The main lists can be divided into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish coalitions, with Shia parties being the most prominent due to their greater influence over Iraqi politics since 2005.
Candidates elected based on their position in the party will be elected to four-year terms in parliament.
An electronic voting system is being used for the first time this year to try to reduce fraud and speed up the counting process.
Results will be released within 48 hours of Saturday’s poll close, according to the independent body overseeing the elections.
Security has been tightened across Iraq in the days before the election after ISIL threatened to target polling stations.
Baghdad, Mosul and other major cities are imposing curfews on election day, and travel between provinces has already been restricted. As of Friday, airports and border crossings will be closed.
The 2018 vote will see competition between two main Sunni coalitions, four Kurdish lists and five main Shia coalitions, from which the next prime minister of Iraq will be chosen. That candidate will, in turn, determine the fate of Iraq’s national unity.
Al-Abadi, heading the Nasr (Victory) Coalition, is seeking to retain his post but faces stiff competition from his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, heading the Dawlat al-Qanun (State of Law) Coalition, and the Fateh alliance of candidates, who have close ties to the powerful, mostly Shia, paramilitary forces.
Fatah is headed by Hadi al-Amiri, a former minister of transport who became a senior commander of paramilitary fighters in the fight against the ISIL. Many of the candidates on his list were also paramilitary commanders before they cut their official ties with paramilitary forces to seek office.
Influential Shia scholar Muqtada al-Sadr leads the Sairoon Coalition, an alliance of the Sadrist Movement and the Iraqi Communist Party. His campaign has focused on fighting corruption and social issues.
Finally, the Hikma Coalition (Wisdom), created by Amar al-Hakim in July 2017, is running on a platform to attract a younger electorate from traditional Shia parties.
Sunni leaders have coalesced around two primary lists, one of which is al-Qarar al-Iraqi, led by Osama al-Nujaifi, one of Iraq’s three vice presidents, and his brother, and the other is the Wataniya Alliance represented by Salim al-Jabouri, the current speaker of parliament, and Saleh al-Mutlaq, former deputy prime minister, and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s secular coalition.
According to Ibrahim Marashi, associate professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos, “Arab Sunni parties have failed to agree to run under a single list for 2018… [which is] indicative of the failure of one party that will represent their aspirations.”
No one group is expected to able to win the 165 seats required for an outright majority. Instead, the bloc that wins the most seats will have to bring together a majority by getting the support of smaller alliances.
The process of choosing the next prime minister is expected to take months and will likely result in power being dispersed across different political parties with clashing interests.
Until a new prime minister is chosen, al-Abadi will remain in office, retaining all his powers.
Political power in Iraq is traditionally divided along sectarian lines among the offices of prime minister, president and speaker of parliament.
Since the first elections following the 2003 US-led toppling of Saddam Hussein, the Shia majority has held the position of prime minister, while the Kurds have held the presidency and the Sunnis have held the post of speaker of parliament.
But with instability in the Kurdish region of Iraq since the 2017 independence referendum, the Kurds have become divided and are unlikely to have a substantial impact on the formation of the new government.
“As a result of the referendum and fiasco that ensued, the Kurdish vote is more fragmented today than at any point since 2003,” said Fanar al-Haddad, a research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore.
The constitution sets a quota for female representation, stating that no less than one-fourth of parliament members must be women.
Once results of the election are ratified by Iraq’s Supreme Court, parliament is required to meet within 15 days.
Its eldest member will chair the first session, during which a speaker will be elected. Parliament must then elect a president by a two-thirds majority vote within 30 days of its first meeting.
The president is charged with naming a member of the largest bloc in parliament – the prime minister-designate – to form a cabinet within 30 days. If that individual fails, the president must nominate a new person for the post of prime minister.
In the past, forming a government has taken up to eight months. In 2005, allegations of vote-rigging delayed the ratification of election results for weeks.
Experts envision that al-Abadi may win a second term, but also see most of the main Shia coalitions being represented in government.
This is especially true for al-Amiri’s Fateh Coalition which has closer ties than the Nasr Coalition does with Iran, a country that plays a large role in Shia politics in Iraq.
“The Fateh Coalition [represented by al-Amiri] will inevitably be a part of the coming government. It’s a question of how big a chunk of the political pie they will have,” said al-Haddad.