Iraqis went to the polls for an early election, which was billed as a concession to the anti-government protests, but was expected to be boycotted by many voters who distrust the official reform promises.
Elections opened at 7:00 a.m. (4:00 a.m. GMT) on Sunday, but few voters showed up too early at a school polling station in the center of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
“I came 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 vote. “You promised us a lot, but brought us nothing.”
Security in the capital was strict, and voters were searched twice at the entrance to the polling stations.
Airports have been closed until dawn across Iraq, where sleeper cells continue to carry out attacks despite the government’s declaration of victory over ISIS in late 2017.
“Iraqis should have the confidence to vote freely in an environment free of pressure, intimidation and threats,” the UN mission in Iraq said ahead of the elections.
The elections will remain open until 6:00 p.m., preliminary results are expected within 24 hours of closing. Dozens of election observers sent by the European Union and the United Nations were supposed to monitor the vote.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has cast his vote in the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.
“This is an opportunity for change,” he said.
“Go out there and choose, change your reality, for Iraq and for your future,” urged al-Kadhimi, whose political future is at stake, with few observers ready to predict who will be after the long back room haggling Gaining the upper hand usually follows Iraqi elections.
Analysts have forecast a record low turnout, held a year earlier in a rare concession to the youth-led protest movement.
Dozens of anti-government activists have been killed, kidnapped or intimidated in the past two years on allegations that pro-Iranian armed groups, many of whom are represented in parliament, were behind the violence.
Mahmoud Abdelwahed from Al Jazeera reported from Baghdad that the expectations of a low turnout are largely based on the disillusionment of the people, especially the youth.
â€œMost of the disaffected are those who stand up against corruption and mismanagement in the so-called table green in 2019. have raised [October] Revolution, â€he said.
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in October 2019 to express their anger over corruption, unemployment and crumbling public services, and hundreds were killed in protest violence.
The protests have largely fizzled out as the anger has given way to disillusionment.
â€œPeople are boycotting the elections because they say they will not bring about change; it still produces the same old parties even though the same old parties have reshuffled their candidates, â€said Abdelwahed.
“Nothing will change. This election will be won by the same factions against which the people protested,” said 45-year-old Baghdad day laborer Mohammed Kassem, who did not want to vote, the AFP news agency.
‘Trip to Jerusalem’
At least 167 parties and more than 3,200 candidates are competing for Iraq’s 329 seats in parliament, according to the country’s electoral commission.
Iraqi elections are often followed by months of lengthy negotiations on a president, prime minister and cabinet.
A new one-member electoral system for the election of Iraqi politicians aims to weaken the power of traditional blocs, which are largely based on religious, ethnic and clan affiliations.
Most analysts believe, however, that this will make the political process even less accountable.
Officials say a new electoral law, including a response to protesters’ demands, will help independent, reform-minded candidates, but that depends on voter turnout.
Many Iraqis say they are boycotting the vote. They consider the democratic system introduced after the US invasion to be flawed and only serves the political parties that have dominated the state since then.
The electoral commission said it expects the preliminary results to be released within 24 hours of the end of the elections.
The balance of power will likely take longer to develop as the leading factions compete for the support of a larger number of independents.
The Fateh Alliance, the bloc that represents many of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, is expected to retain its seat share.
Populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s list, already the largest in the outgoing parliament, is expected to grow, but not enough to dominate the Shiite camp.
“The election is likely to result in yet another fragmented parliament, followed by opaque, corrupt horse-trading between factions to form the next government,” researchers Bilal Wahab and Calvin Wilder said in an analysis published by the Washington Institute.
“Few expect this election to be more than a game of musical chairs, and the movement’s core demands (October 2019) – curbing systemic corruption, creating jobs and making armed groups accountable – are unlikely to be met.”