Iraqis vote a year early with little hope for change

·4-min read

Iraqis voted Sunday in a parliamentary election a year early as a concession to an anti-government protest movement but seen as unlikely to deliver major change to the war-scarred country.

Many of the 25 million eligible voters were expected to have boycotted the polls amid deep distrust in a political class widely blamed for graft, unemployment and crumbling public services in oil-rich Iraq.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi's future hangs in the balance, with few observers willing to predict who will come out on top after the usual political haggling between factions that follow Iraqi elections.

"Get out there and vote, change your reality, for Iraq and for your future," Kadhemi said, casting his ballot. He later tweeted that he had "kept his promise and done his duty by organising fair elections".

Polls closed at 1500 GMT, with electoral commission chief Jalil Adnan saying preliminary results would be known within 24 hours and voter turnout announced late Sunday.

But three hours before the end, voter turnout had been at just over 30 percent, he said.

At the last election in 2018, the figure was also modest, officially reaching 44.5 percent.

Viola von Cramon, who heads a team of EU observers, lamented Sunday's "low turnout". The United Nations also sent observers.

"Unfortunately we have only seen a very low turnout at this point... This is a clear political signal, and one can only hope that it will be heard by the politicians and by the political elite of Iraq," she said.

Few voters expressed enthusiasm among those who queued in the fifth election since the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein with the promise of bringing freedom and democracy.

- 'Incompetent leaders' -

"We want change," said Mohammed, 23, who declined to give his surname.

"I have a degree in Arabic literature but I clean toilets in a restaurant -- it's humiliating."

Housewife Jimand Khalil, 37, said she hoped her vote would help "to change the current leaders who are incompetent".

The election was held under tight security in a country where key parliamentary blocs have armed factions and Islamic State group jihadists have launched deadly suicide attacks this year.

An attack blamed on IS on a voting centre in a remote part of northern Iraq left a police officer dead, a security source said.

Airports were closed and travel between provinces banned, while voters were searched twice at polling stations.

The vote was marred by technical problems at some stations, including malfunctioning equipment and fingerprint readers, officials and AFP journalists said.

A soldier was killed and another wounded by "accidental fire" from a fellow soldier at a polling station in Diyala province bordering Baghdad, officials said.

Authorities also reported the arrest of 77 suspects for electoral "violations".

- 'Corrupt horse-trading' -

A new single-member constituency system for electing Iraq's 329 lawmakers is supposed to have boosted independents versus the traditional blocs largely centred on religious, ethnic and clan affiliations.

But analysts believe the change will be limited.

"The election will likely result in another fragmented parliament, followed by opaque, corrupt horse-trading," wrote researchers Bilal Wahab and Calvin Wilder in an analysis published by the Washington Institute.

"Few expect this election to amount to more than a game of musical chairs, and the (protest) movement's core demands -- curbing systemic corruption, creating jobs and holding armed groups accountable -- are unlikely to be met."

Iraqi researcher Sajad Jiyad said: "What has been going on in the last three years is not inspiring confidence and encouraging people to vote especially among young people."

"There's... general apathy. People just don't believe that elections matter," with little improvement over the past three years, he said.

The election was held a year early in a rare concession to the youth-led protest movement that broke out in October 2019 in Baghdad and swept across much of the country.

Tens of thousands flooded the streets to vent their rage at corruption, unemployment and other problems. Hundreds lost their lives in protest-related violence.

Even as the protests fizzled out as coronavirus hit, more activists were killed, kidnapped or intimidated, with accusations that pro-Iran armed groups, many of them represented in parliament, were behind the violence.

Iraq by convention has had a Shiite Muslim prime minister, a Sunni parliament speaker and a Kurdish president.

The bloc of populist cleric Moqtada Sadr, already the largest in the outgoing parliament, is predicted to make gains but not enough to dominate the Shiite camp.

Another major force is the Fatah Alliance, the bloc representing many Iran-backed Shiite armed groups, which is expected to roughly retain its share of seats.

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