BAGHDAD – Iraqis voted on Sunday in parliamentary elections that are supposed to herald a radical shift to a dysfunctional political system that has dragged the country through nearly two decades of deprivation.
A new electoral system made it easier this time for independent candidates to compete, but the vote was to undermine Iraq’s problems nonetheless. Traditional political factions, many of which are attached to militias, have seemingly insurmountable power, and much of the electorate has grown too contemptuous of politicians to feel compelled to vote.
Turnout appeared low in many polling stations, where election officials implemented the new voting system, which uses biometric cards and other safeguards designed to limit the serious frauds that plagued past elections.
It was Iraq’s fifth parliamentary vote since the invasion of the United States 18 years ago and was likely to bring the same political parties back to power as in previous elections. And despite the widespread anti-government protests that led officials to postpone the vote for a year, Iraq’s system of dividing government ministries between political parties along ethnic and sectarian lines will remain unchanged.
With more independent candidates vying for seats, voters had more than choices – which for many were personal rather than political.
“The big parties did nothing for Iraq, they looted Iraq,” said Mahdi Hassan el-Esa, 82, in front of a polling station in the bourgeois quarter of Mansour in Baghdad. He said he voted for an independent candidate because the man showed up at his door and helped him and his disabled sons register to vote.
At the end of the afternoon, the director of the polling station said that only 138 of the nearly 2,500 registered voters had turned up.
Across the country, Iraqis who voted found schools converted to polling stations where peeling paint, scuffed desks and shattered windows were visible signs of corruption so rampant that it resulted in a nation providing little. of services to its population.
Desperation kept some away from the polls, but others were motivated by the hope that individual candidates could make a difference in the lives of their families.
In the poor neighborhood of Sadr City on the outskirts of Baghdad, Asia and Afaf Nuri, two sisters, said they voted for Haqouq, a new party affiliated with Kitaib Hezbollah, one of the largest militias supported by Iran. Asia Nuri said they chose this candidate because he was working with her son.
While a majority of Sadr City voters were expected to vote for the political movement loyal to Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, dissenting voices even existed there.
“I am a son of this region and this city,” said Mohammad, an army officer who said he, his family and friends were all going to spoil their ballots in protest. He demanded that only his first name be used to avoid retaliation for criticizing the Sadr movement.
“I don’t want to participate in the corruption that is happening in this country,” he said, adding that people still trusted Mr. Sadr but not the corrupt politicians who ran on his behalf.
The mercurial Shiite cleric, who fought American troops in 2004, has become a major political figure in Iraq, even when he disavows politics. This year, after a devastating fire at a Covid hospital overseen by a Sadrist provincial health director, Mr Sadr announced that his movement would not participate in the elections. He then changed his mind, saying the next prime minister should be from the Sadr movement.
Sadr supporters at a rally in Baghdad on Friday night declared victory even before voting began. “We will win,” they chanted as they dance around Tahrir Square.
Mr Sadr begged his supporters last week to each bring 10 other voters to the polls. On Sunday, in violation of electoral rules, cars draped in Sadr flags were parked in front of one of Sadr City’s polling centers as tuk-tuks raced with continuous Sadr banners.
Almost all of the major political factions have been implicated in corruption, a major factor in the poor Iraqi public service.
Electricity in many provinces is only supplied for two hours at a time. In sweltering summers, there is no clean water. And millions of college graduates are out of work.
This all came to a head two years ago when protests that started in southern Iraq spread to Baghdad. Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets day after day to demand the downfall of the government and its elite and a new political system that would provide jobs and public services. They also demanded an end to Iranian influence in Iraq, where proxy militias are often more powerful than traditional Iraqi security forces.
Security forces and armed militiamen have killed more than 600 unarmed protesters since protests intensified in 2019. Militias are blamed for dozens more targeted killings of militants.
The protesters achieved one of their goals when the government was forced to resign. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was nominated as a compromise candidate, promising early elections. Although he kept that promise with the weekend vote, he was unable to keep the others, including bringing the killers of protesters and activists to justice and subduing militias operating outside of the law.
Many people involved in the protests boycotted the elections, and Sunday in Baghdad in many polling centers, few young voters were present.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shia cleric, urged Iraqis to vote, saying in his post that although the elections had some flaws, they were still the best way to avoid “falling” in chaos and political obstruction “.
Voting in most towns was conducted without electoral violence, but the campaign was marked by intimidation and attacks on candidates.
The body of a young activist from the southern province of Diwaniya was found floating in a river on Saturday, two days after his kidnapping. The man, Hayder al-Zameli, had posted cartoons on social media criticizing supporters of Iraqi parties.
Iraqi security forces went to the polls early, voting separately on Friday as fighter jets roared overhead to boost security at the event. The government also closed its land borders and commercial airports from the day before the vote until the next day.
Even among the security forces, normally the most loyal supporters of the major parties, there were dissenting voices.
“To be honest, we’ve had enough,” said Army Major Hisham Raheem, voting in a neighborhood in central Baghdad. He said he would not vote for the people he chose the last time around and that he was supporting an independent candidate.
In a popular falafel shop filled with security forces who had just voted, a soldier who asked to be called Abu Ali – the name by which his friends know him – said he was voting for the former Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
Mr Maliki, although blamed for bringing Iraq back into sectarianism and promoting the rise of ISIS, is also credited with sending government troops to break the hold of militias over the Iraqi coastal city of Basra and its lucrative ports.
“It’s bad, but it gets worse,” Abu Ali said with a laugh.
Falih Hassan, Nermeen al-Mufti and Sura Ali contributed reporting.