Iraqis have started voting on Saturday in country’s first parliamentary polls since Baghdad declared the routing of Daesh in a devastating campaign five months ago. Nearly 7,000 candidates, including 2,011 women, are vying for seats in the 329-strong parliament, which will elect Iraq’s president and prime minister.
Many contenders are outgoing lawmakers and politicians, seen as having done little to fight corruption and improve services in the OPEC member country. Incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, credited with the victory over Daesh, is eyeing a second term in office. He is competing on the cross-sectarian Victory Alliance list. However, splits among leaders of the country’s Shiite majority make it unlikely for a single electoral alliance to secure enough seats to form the government on its own.
Some 22.5 million Iraqis are eligible voters, according to official figures. Polls have opened at 7am (0400 GMT) and will close at 6pm. Official results are expected to be announced on Sunday due to the introduction of an electronic voting system.
Iraqi authorities have tightened security for the election, amid fears of attacks by Islamic State remnants. The country’s border crossings and airports were closed on Friday at midnight until the end of the one-day balloting. Last month, Daesh threatened to attack Iraq’s polling stations, saying any participant in the vote would be targeted. Cells thought to be linked to the terrorist group have mounted scattered attacks across Iraq since al-Abadi declared in December the recapture all the territory seized by Daesh in the country.
The country has struggled to find a formula for stability since a U.S.-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, and many Iraqis have lost faith in their politicians. Whoever the new parliament chooses as prime minister will face an array of challenges after a three-year war against Islamic State which cost the country about $100 billion.
“I will participate but I will mark an ‘X’ on my ballot. There is no security, no jobs, no services. Candidates are just looking to line up their pockets, not to help people,” said Jamal Mowasawi, a 61-year-old butcher. The three main candidates for prime minister, incumbent Haider al-Abadi, his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki and Shi’ite militia commander Hadi al-Amiri all need the support of Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal will prompt Iran to maintain its vast political and military influence in Iraq, the most important Arab state for Tehran.
Abadi is considered by analysts to be marginally ahead, but victory is far from certain for the man who raised hopes that he could forge unity when he came to office. But while he reached out to minority Sunnis he alienated Kurds after crushing their bid for independence. He improved his standing with the victory against Daesh, which had occupied a third of Iraq. But Abadi lacks charisma and has failed to improve the economy and tackle corruption. He also cannot rely solely on votes from his community as the Shi’ite voter base is unusually split this year. Instead, he is looking to draw support from other groups. Even if Abadi’s Victory Alliance list wins the most seats, he still has to negotiate the formation of a coalition government, which must be concluded within 90 days of the election. “It’s the same faces and same programs. Abadi is the best of the worst; at least under his rule we had the liberation (from Daesh),” said Hazem al-Hassan, 50-year-old fishmonger in Baghdad.
Amiri spent more than two decades fighting Saddam from exile in Iran. The 63-year-old leads the Badr Organisation, which was the backbone of the volunteer forces that fought Daesh. He hopes to capitalize on his battlefield successes. Victory for Amiri would be a win for Iran, which is locked in proxy wars for influence across the Middle East.
But many Iraqis are disillusioned with war heroes and politicians who have failed to restore state institutions and provide badly needed health and education services. “There is no trust between the people and the governing class,” said Hussein Fadel, a 42-year-old supermarket cashier in the capital. “All sides are terrible. I will not vote.” Critics say Maliki’s sectarian policies created an atmosphere that enabled Islamic State to gain sympathy among some Sunnis as it swept across Iraq in 2014. Maliki was sidelined soon afterward, having been in office for eight years, but he is now trying to make a comeback. In contrast to Abadi, with his cross-sectarian message, Maliki is again posing as Iraq’s Shi’ite champion, and has proposed doing away with the unofficial power-sharing model under which all main parties have cabinet representatives.
Iraq’s Sunni minority had dominated key positions in government during Saddam’s brutal rule, whereas majority Shi’ites have held sway since a U.S-led invasion toppled the dictator in 2003. Maliki, who pushed for U.S. troop withdrawals, and Amiri, who speaks fluent Farsi and spent years in exile in Iran during Saddam’s time, are both seen as much closer to Tehran than Abadi. The post of prime minister has been reserved for a Shi’ite, the speaker is a Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd – all three chosen by parliament.
More than 7,000 candidates in 18 provinces, or governorates, are running this year for 329 parliamentary seats. In Kirkuk, the main oil city disputed by Iraq’s Kurds and the Baghdad government, 90-year-old Najm al-Azzawi has witnessed Iraq’s upheaval over many years: Saddam Hussein’s military adventures and the crippling international sanctions that followed, the U.S. occupation, sectarian bloodshed and Daesh’s reign of terror. But he has not lost hope. “God save Iraqis from the darkness they have been in,” he said. “It is the most joyful thing to vote.”
Sources: Syria & Iraq News/dpa/Reuters