BAGHDAD – Iraqis voted on Sunday in parliamentary elections aimed at heralding sweeping changes to a dysfunctional political system that has dragged the country to nearly two decades of deprivation.
A new electoral system this time made it easier for independent candidates to compete, but the vote was still expected to clear the edges of Iraq’s troubles. Traditional political factions, many of them affiliated with the militias, have a seemingly insurmountable power, and most voters have become so disdainful of politicians that they are forced to vote.
Turnout was less visible at many polling places, where election workers implemented a new voting system that uses biometric cards and other security measures aimed at limiting serious fraud that occurred in previous elections.
It was Iraq’s fifth parliamentary vote since the United States invaded 18 years earlier and was likely to return the same political parties to power as in previous elections. And despite widespread anti-government protests, which caused officials to extend the vote by a year, Iraq’s system of dividing government ministries between political parties on ethnic and sectarian lines will remain unchanged.
With more independent candidates vying for seats, voters on Sunday had more Choices – which for many were personal rather than political.
“The big parties have done nothing for Iraq, they have looted Iraq,” said 82-year-old Mahdi Hassan al-Essa outside a polling station in Baghdad’s upper-middle-class Mansoor neighborhood. He said he voted for an independent as the man came to his door and helped him and his disabled sons vote.
As of late afternoon, the polling station manager said only 138 of the nearly 2,500 registered voters had come.
Across the country, voting Iraqis found that schools had been converted into polling places, with chipped paint, battered desks and broken windows showing signs of corruption, resulting in a nation that has lost its territory. Provides certain services to the people.
Disappointment kept some people away from the election, but others were driven by the hope that individual candidates could make a difference in their families’ lives.
In the poor Sadar City neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad, Asia and Aff Noori, two sisters said they voted for Hakouk, a new party affiliated with Kitab Hezbollah, one of the largest Iranian-backed militias. Asiya Noori said that she chose that candidate because he works with her son.
While most voters in the city of Sadr were expected to cast ballots for a political movement loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, there were also voices of dissent.
“I am the son of this region and this city,” said Mohammad, a military officer who said that he, his family and his friends were going to spoil their ballot papers in protest. He said that to avoid retribution for his criticism of the Sadar movement. For this only their first name should be used.
“I don’t want to participate in the corruption happening in this country,” he said, adding that people still had faith in Mr. Sadar, but not in corrupt politicians running in his name.
The Shia cleric who fought US troops in 2004 has become a major political figure in Iraq, even though he has rejected politics. Following a devastating fire this year at a COVID hospital under the supervision of a Sadrist provincial health director, Mr. Sadr announced that his movement would not participate in elections. Later he changed his mind saying that the next prime minister should be from Sadar Andolan.
At a rally in Baghdad on Friday night, Sadar supporters declared victory even before voting began. “We will win,” he shouted as he danced around Tahrir Square.
Mr. Sadar last week urged his supporters to include 10 other voters each. On Sunday, in violation of election rules, cars draped in Sadar flags parked in front of a polling station in Sadar city while tuk-tuks ran around with Sadar banners streaming.
Nearly every major political faction has been implicated in corruption, a major factor in Iraq’s poor public services.
In many provinces, electricity is provided for only two hours at a time. There is no clean water in the hot summer. And millions of university graduates are without jobs.
It all reached a climax two years ago when protests that began in the south of Iraq spread to Baghdad. Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets day after day to demand the collapse of the government and its elite and a new political system that would provide jobs and public services. He also sought to end Iranian influence in Iraq, where proxy militias are often more powerful than Iraq’s traditional security forces.
Security forces and militia gunmen have killed more than 600 unarmed protesters since demonstrations intensified in 2019. The militia is blamed for the targeted killings of dozens of other activists.
The protesters achieved one of their goals when the government was forced to step down. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was appointed as a compromise candidate, promising early elections. While he has fulfilled that promise with the weekend’s vote, he has not been able to deliver on others, including bringing the killers of protesters and activists to justice and reining in militias operating outside the law.
Many people involved in the protests were boycotting the election and some young voters were seen at several polling stations in Baghdad on Sunday.
Iraq’s most revered Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged Iraqis to vote, saying in his message that although the election had some shortcomings, it would avoid “anarchy and political disruption”. is the best way.
Voting in most cities was free of electoral violence, but the campaign has been marked by intimidation and attacks on candidates.
In the southern province of Diwaniya, the body of a youth activist was found floating in a river on Saturday, two days after she was abducted. Haider al-Zameli posted cartoons on social media criticizing followers of Iraqi parties.
Iraqi security forces went early to vote, voting separately on Friday as fighter jets made thunderous noises to tighten security for the event. The government was also closing its land borders and commercial airports from the night before the vote to the day before.
Even among the security forces, usually the most loyal of supporters of the major parties, there were voices of dissent.
“To be honest, we’ve had enough,” Army Major Hisham Rahim said while voting in a neighborhood in central Baghdad. He said that he will not vote for the people elected last time and is supporting an independent candidate.
At a popular falafel shop full of security forces that had just voted, a soldier who asked to be called Abu Ali – by the name his friends know him – said he was the former prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki. was voting for.
Mr Maliki, while blamed for pulling Iraq back into sectarianism and fueling the rise of ISIS, was also credited with sending government troops to break militias’ hold on Iraq’s coastal city of Basra and its lucrative ports goes.
“That’s bad, but even worse,” said Abu Ali, laughing.
Falih Hassan, Narmin Al-Mufti and Sura Ali contributed reporting.