BAGHDAD — Iraqis voted Sunday in parliamentary elections meant to herald sweeping change to a dysfunctional political system that has dragged the country through almost two decades of deprivation.
A new electoral system made it easier this time for independent candidates to compete, but the vote was nonetheless expected to merely chip away at the edges of Iraq’s troubles. Traditional political factions, many of them attached to militias, have seemingly insurmountable power, and much of the electorate has become too disdainful of politicians to feel compelled to vote at all.
Turnout appeared to be low at many polling sites, where election workers put in place the new voting system, which uses biometric cards and other safeguards intended to limit the fraud that has marred past elections.
It was Iraq’s fifth parliamentary vote since the United States invaded 18 years ago and was likely to return the same political parties to power as in previous elections. And despite the sweeping anti-government protests that led officials to push the vote up by a year, Iraq’s system of dividing up government ministries among political parties along ethnic and sectarian lines will remain unchanged.
With more independent candidates vying for seats, voters Sunday had more choices — which for many were personal rather than political.
“The big parties have not done anything for Iraq; they looted Iraq,” said Mahdi Hassan el-Esa, 82, outside a polling station in the upper-middle-class Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad. He said he voted for an independent candidate because the man came to his door and helped him and his disabled sons register to vote.
By late afternoon, the manager of the polling station said only 138 of almost 2,500 registered voters had turned up.
Across the country, Iraqis who did vote found schools converted into polling sites where peeling paint, battered desks, and broken windows were visible signs of corruption so rampant it has resulted in a nation that provides few services to its people.
Despair kept some away from the polls, but others were motivated by the hope that individual candidates could make a difference in their families’ lives.
In the poor Sadr City neighborhood on Baghdad’s outskirts, Asia and Afaf Nuri, two sisters, said they voted for Haqouq, a new party that is affiliated with Kitaib Hezbollah, one of the biggest Iranian-backed militias. Asia Nuri said they chose that candidate because he works with her son.
While a majority of Sadr City voters were expected to cast ballots for the political movement loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, voices of dissent existed even there.
“I am a son of this area and this city,” said Mohammad, an army officer who said he, his family, and his friends were all going to spoil their ballots in protest. He asked that only his first name be used to avoid retaliation for criticizing the Sadr movement.
“I do not want to participate in the corruption that is happening to this country,” he said, adding that people still had faith in Sadr but not in the corrupt politicians running in his name.
The mercurial Shi’ite cleric, who fought US troops in 2004, has become a major political figure in Iraq, even when he disavows politics. This year after a devastating fire in a COVID-19 hospital overseen by a Sadrist provincial health director, Sadr announced that his movement would not participate in elections. He later 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 the voting began. “We will win,” they chanted, dancing around Tahrir Square.
Sadr entreated his supporters last week to each take 10 other voters to the polls. On Sunday, in contravention of election rules, cars draped with Sadr flags sat parked across from one of the voting centers in Sadr City while tuk-tuks raced around with Sadr banners streaming.
Almost every major political faction has been implicated in corruption, a major factor in Iraq’s poor public services.
Electricity in many provinces is provided only for two hours at a time. In the sweltering summers, there is no clean water. And millions of university graduates are without jobs.
All of that reached a tipping point two years ago when protests that began in the south of Iraq spread to Baghdad. Thousands of Iraqis went to the streets day after day to demand the fall of the government and its elite and a new political system that would deliver jobs and public services. They also demanded an end to 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. Militias are blamed for dozens of other targeted killings of 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, pledging 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 who were involved in the protests were boycotting the elections, and Sunday in Baghdad at many polling centers, few young voters were to be seen.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite cleric, urged Iraqis to vote, saying in his message that although the election had some shortcomings, it remained the best way to avoid “falling into chaos and political obstruction.”
Iraqi security forces went early to the polls, voting separately Friday as fighter jets roared overhead to reinforce the heightened security for the event. The government was also shutting down its land borders and commercial airports from the night before voting to the day after.
Even among the security forces, normally the most loyal of supporters for the major parties, there were voices of dissent.
“To be honest, we have 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 last time and was backing an independent candidate.