Early voting has begun in Iraq’s parliamentary elections, with security forces, prisoners and internally displaced people casting their ballots two days ahead of Sunday’s general vote.
Iraqis are to elect a new parliament in the fifth such vote since a United States-led invasion in 2003 overthrew longtime leader Saddam Hussein.
A total of 329 seats are up for grabs in the election, which was moved forward from 2022 as a concession to youth-led pro-democracy protests that erupted in late 2019.
But many voters are expected to stay away amid widespread anger over corruption and ineffectual governance that has failed to meet the aspirations of Iraq’s 40 million people, 60 percent of whom are aged under 25.
There are fears voter turnout could drop below the 44.5 percent figure registered in 2018.
“What’s voting going to change? Nothing,” Naktal Aziz, a resident of Mosul, which was devastated in the fight against the ISIL (ISIS) armed group, told Al Jazeera. “The same people will be in charge after as they were before.”
Mahmoud Ezzo, a professor at the college of political science at Mosul University, said “there are many calls for a boycott”.
“The first is from the people frustrated with the old parties who have controlled parliament since 2005,” he told Al Jazeera. “The second is the failure of the government to compensate those who have lost homes, business and lives particularly in the Old City.”
More than 25 million citizens are eligible to vote – but not nationals living abroad. Voters are supposed to present a biometric card for what was conceived as a fully electronic voting process. However, some have not received the cards and authorities say provisions have been made to ensure they are not excluded.
Al Jazeera’s Ali Hashem, reporting from the capital, Baghdad, said there were 600 polling stations across the country dedicated to Friday’s early voting.
“This election means a lot to Iraqis, especially with it being the main demand of the protests in 2019,” he said. “The new electoral law will allow more independent candidates to the parliament. However, there is a bit of scepticism among the Iraqi public – mainly the Iraqi civil society – on whether this is going to be possible.”
More than 3,240 candidates are in the running, including 950 women.
One-quarter of seats are reserved for female candidates, and nine for minorities including Christians and Yazidis.
This year’s election will be held under a new reformed electoral law that divides Iraq into 83 constituencies, instead of 18.
The new single-member constituency system is supposed to boost independents and reduce traditional political blocs, largely centred on religious, ethnic and clan affiliations.
Groups from Iraq’s Shia Muslim majority have dominated since the overthrow of Saddam’s Sunni Arab-dominated government, but they are divided among themselves.
There are also groups representing the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities.
In Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish Peshmerga fighter, who did not wish to share his name, said: “I do not see any shortcoming in the voting process, except that it is going on a little bit slow.”
“We voted freely and without any political pressure,” he told Al Jazeera.
Muhamed Tahir, an observer from the Kurdish Coalition which includes the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Movement of Change (Gorran), told Al Jazeera that at a polling station which can accommodate up to 450 people, only 130 people had cast their ballots at the station in the first four hours of the vote.
The biggest bloc, with 54 seats in the last assembly, has been led by populist firebrand Shia Muslim scholar Muqtada al-Sadr, a former leader of an anti-US militia.
He has emerged as a vocal critic of corrupt politicians and inept public authorities, even if his supporters are also active at all levels of the state apparatus.
The al-Sadr-led Sairoon bloc could strengthen its hold in parliament after scoring big in the 2018 elections.
Candidates representing pro-Tehran paramilitary groups were elected to parliament for the first time in 2018, a year after their fighters were key in defeating ISIL.
The Conquest Alliance is led by Hadi al-Ameri, who also heads the Badr organisation, one of the factions of the Hashd al-Shaabi, former paramilitaries now integrated into the regular forces.
Another major player is Huqooq, which is close to the Hezbollah Brigades, another group under the Hashd umbrella.
Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who led Iraq from 2006 to 2014, heads the State of Law Alliance.
The Alliance of State Forces brings together the groups of ex-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who led the fight against ISIL (ISIS), and Ammar al-Hakim, who leads the moderates in the Shia camp.
The influential speaker of parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi, leads the successful Taqaddum (Progress) movement that draws support from the mainly Sunni Arab west of Iraq.
Their main competitor is the Azm (Determination) movement of controversial Sunni politician Khamis al-Khanjar, who has been sanctioned by Washington and is accused of corruption.
The two main historic parties are the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of the Barzani clan and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of the Talabani clan.
The Kurdish opposition is represented by Jamaa Islamiya, the recently formed New Generation movement and Goran (Change).
Additional reporting by Dana Taib Menmy from Sulaymaniyah.