Iraqis have turned out in low numbers in a national election, with many boycotting a poll that people feared could reinforce a political system that had failed them.
Nationwide turnout at the sixth ballot since the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003 was 41%, the electoral commission said. In recent elections, turnout has averaged just over 65%, according to non-profit the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.
Earlier, there were fears it would be as low as 25%, with the country’s disillusioned youth and middle classes largely staying home.
Ahead of the poll, there were widespread claims that voting for a political class, which is accused of doing little to provide basic services or secure the country’s citizens, would preserve the status quo.
The election had been called early partly in response to anti-government protests in October 2019 that had led to at least 600 people being killed by government soldiers and militia members. Since then, large numbers of activists have gone into exile and several dozen government critics have been murdered inside Iraq.
The vote was largely seen as a lack of faith in the democratic system introduced after the US invasion. The contest for influence in Iraq’s 329-seat parliament is fought between political blocs who, depending on their performance, have sway over the choice of prime minister, which goes to a Shia nominee, president, ascribed to a Kurd, and the parliamentary speaker, who by convention is a Sunni.
Horse trading for the positions is expected to take many months – a process that is likely to result in ministries again being carved up between blocs. “The election allows a veneer of democracy,” said Munther Mansour, a Baghdad resident. “But nothing that comes afterwards is democratic.”
Shia blocs have performed strongly in most past elections and that trend is expected to continue, with powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr expected to poll well. The Fatah alliance, headed by the former leader of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), which was raised to fight Islamic state in 2014, is another likely to win voter support.
Iraq’s incumbent prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is likely to be a candidate for a second term, although he is likely to face a protracted fight to retain his job.
“The election was called early to meet one of the demands of nationwide protests,” said Iraq watcher and professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, Toby Dodge. “However, the election campaign was then totally undermined by a carefully deployed campaign of targeted assassinations against the very same protest movement that called for elections.
“In these circumstances, the new government will have little legitimacy and will certainly have no answers to the chronic problems, both political and economic, that Iraq faces. If the international community attempts to see this election as a success they are ignoring the violence that has dogged the campaign and the refusal of an alienated youth to participate.”
In an assessment prepared ahead of the poll, Dr Renad Mansour and Hayder al-Shakeri, Iraq specialists at Chatham House, wrote: “Elections are an example of the politically sanctioned corruption which has marred governance in Iraq since 2003.
“In Baghdad, wrangling over the government formation began months ago despite the fact no votes had yet been cast.”
In Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, turnout appeared to be exceptionally low. “I thought hard about voting, but decided not to,’’ said Widad Ahmad, 27, a native of the city who returned after the ousting of Islamic State. “I want to believe in this, but I can’t. All the election does is entrench the ruling class.”
There were no serious security incidents reported as voting took place and preliminary results are expected within 24 hours.