Iraqi voters head to the polls in test for democratic system

Election held early in concession to youth-led protest movement but analysts expect low turnout amid widespread distrust in official promises of reform.

An Iraqi voter shows his inked finger after casting his ballot at a polling station in Baghdad [Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP]

Iraqis headed to the polls for an early election billed as a concession to anti-government protests but one expected to be boycotted by many voters who distrust official promises of reform.

Polls opened at 7am (04:00 GMT) on Sunday but few voters turned up early at one polling station at a school in the centre of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

“I have come to vote to change the country for the better, and to change the current leaders who are incompetent,” said Jimand Khalil, 37, who was one of the first to cast her vote. “They made a lot of promises to us but didn’t bring us anything.”

Security was tight in the capital, with voters searched twice at the entrance to polling stations.

Airports have been closed until dawn on Monday across Iraq, where despite the government’s declaration of victory over the ISIL (ISIS) group in late 2017, sleeper cells continue to mount attacks.

“Iraqis should have the confidence to vote as they please, in an environment free of pressure, intimidation and threats,” the UN mission in Iraq said ahead of the vote.

Polls remain open until 6pm, with preliminary results expected within 24 hours of closing. Dozens of election observers deployed by the European Union and the United Nations monitored the vote.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi cast his ballot early in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.

“This is an opportunity for change,” he said.

“Get out there and vote, change your reality, for Iraq and for your future,” urged al-Kadhimi, whose political future hangs in the balance, with few observers willing to predict who will come out on top after the lengthy backroom haggling that usually follows Iraqi elections.

Analysts have predicted a record-low turnout for the polls, held a year early in a rare concession to the youth-led protest movement. The 2018 elections saw just 44 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots, a record low, and the results were widely contested.

Dozens of anti-government activists have been killed, kidnapped or intimidated over the last two years, with accusations that pro-Iran armed groups, many of which are represented in parliament, have been behind the violence.

Analysts predicted a record-low turnout for the polls [Dana Taib Menmy/Al Jazeera]

Reporting from Baghdad, Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed said the expectations of low turnout are widely based on disillusionment among people, especially the youth.

“Most of the disillusioned are those who rose up against corruption and mismanagement in 2019 in what is known as the Tishreen [October] revolution,” he said.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in October 2019 to express their anger at corruption, unemployment and crumbling public services, and hundreds lost their lives in protest-related violence.

The protests have largely fizzled out as anger has given way to disillusion.

“Nothing will change. This election will be won by the same factions that people protested against,” said 45-year-old Baghdad day labourer Mohammed Kassem, who did not intend to vote.

Map of Iraq with the number of seats, and provinces

‘Musical chairs’

At least 167 parties and more than 3,200 candidates are competing for Iraq’s 329 seats in parliament, according to the country’s election commission.

Iraqi elections are often followed by months of protracted negotiations over a president, a prime minister and a cabinet.

A new single-member constituency system for electing Iraq’s politicians is supposed to weaken the power of the traditional blocs largely based on religious, ethnic and clan affiliations.

But most analysts believe it will make the political process even less accountable.

Officials say a new voting law, also a response to protester demands, will help independent, pro-reform candidates, but that will depend on turnout.

Many Iraqis say they will boycott the vote. They view the democratic system ushered in after the 2003 US-led invasion as flawed and serving only the political parties that have dominated the state since then.

Iraq's parliamentary system

The electoral commission said it expects to publish preliminary results within 24 hours of the close of polls.

It will likely take longer for the balance of power to emerge as the leading factions compete for the support of a larger number of independents.

The Fateh Alliance, the bloc representing many Iran-backed Shia militias, is expected to retain its share of seats.

The list of populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr, already the largest in the outgoing parliament, is expected to make gains but not enough to dominate the Shia camp. In the Shia holy city of Najaf, al-Sadr cast his ballot, swarmed by local journalists. He then drove away in a white sedan without commenting.

“The election will likely result in another fragmented parliament, followed by opaque, corrupt horse-trading among factions to form the next government,” said researchers Bilal Wahab and Calvin Wilder in an analysis published by the Washington Institute.

“Few expect this election to amount to more than a game of musical chairs, and the [October 2019 protest] movement’s core demands – curbing systemic corruption, creating jobs and holding armed groups accountable – are unlikely to be met.”

The electoral commission said it expects to publish preliminary results within 24 hours of the close of polls [Dana Taib Menmy/Al Jazeera]

Under Iraq’s laws, the winner of Sunday’s vote gets to choose the country’s next prime minister, but it’s unlikely any of the competing coalitions can secure a clear majority. That will require a lengthy process involving backroom negotiations to select a consensus prime minister and agree on a new coalition government.

It took eight months of political wrangling to form a government after the 2018 elections.

By midday, turnout was still relatively low and streets mostly deserted. In a tea shop in Baghdad’s Karradah neighbourhood, one of the few open, candidate Reem Abdulhadi walked in to ask whether people had cast their vote.

“I will give my vote to Umm Kalthoum, the singer, she is the only one who deserves it,” the tea vendor replied, referring to the late Egyptian singer beloved by many in the Arab world. He said he will not take part in the election and didn’t believe in the political process.

After a few words, Abdulhadi gave the man, who asked to remain anonymous, a card with her name and number in case he decided to change his mind. He put it in his pocket.

“Thank you, I will keep it as a souvenir,” he said.

Dana Taib Menmy in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq contributed to this report

The Fateh Alliance, the bloc representing many Iran-backed Shia militias, is expected to retain its share of seats [Dana Taib Menmy/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies