The parliamentary elections drew one of the lowest turnout on record, election officials said. This appears to be the lowest turnout in all polls since 2003, according to electoral commissions at polling stations.
Two election commission officials said the nationwide turnout of eligible voters was 19% at noon. The turnout was 44.5% in the last elections in 2018.
The established and Shiite-dominated ruling elite, whose most powerful parties have armed wings, are expected to win the ballot, with the movement led by Shiite populist scholar Moqtada al-Sadr – who opposes any foreign interference and whose main rivals are Shiite groups allied with Iran. – considered the largest faction in parliament.
Such an outcome would not radically alter the balance of power in Iraq or the wider Middle East, say Iraqi officials, foreign diplomats and analysts. But for Iraqis, it could mean that al-Sadr – a former armed group leader and religious conservative – could increase his influence over the government.
Polling stations closed at 6 p.m. (3 p.m. GMT) after 11 a.m. of voting. The results are expected in the next 48 hours, according to the independent body overseeing the Iraqi elections. But negotiations to choose a prime minister to form a government are expected to last weeks, if not months.
Speaking from Baghdad, Mazin al-Eshaikir, an independent Iraqi politician and former government economic adviser, said the low turnout in Sunday’s vote would affect the legitimacy of the elected government – as he did in 2018 .
“We came back to maybe 20% [turnout]. We will have to honor the results, but we are back to purple finger fatigue, ”al-Eshaikir told Al Jazeera.
“People have been going to the polls for 18 years, but they don’t see any change and people are fed up. “
The election took place several months earlier under a new law designed to help independent candidates – a response to mass anti-government protests two years ago.
In Baghdad, high school teacher Abdul Ameer Hassan al-Saadi said he boycotted the elections.
“I lost my 17-year-old son Hussain after he was killed by a tear gas canister fired by police during the Baghdad protests,” said al-Saadi, whose house is near an office. voting in the predominantly Shiite district of Karrada in Baghdad.
“I will not vote for killers and corrupt politicians because the wound inside me and his mother that we suffered after losing our boy is still bleeding. “
In Sulaimaniyah, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Sirwan Hama Faraj, an observer for the Islamic Union of Kurdistan, told Al Jazeera that “75% of the people boycotted the vote because they lost hope. in the electoral process ”.
Barzan Wahab, an artist, said people felt frustrated with the election, but noted that politicians organized it early due to the bloody protests in October 2019.
“Despite the low turnout, this election would definitely change the political map of Iraq because this snap election is the result of the October protests,” Wahab told Al Jazeera.
The European Union’s chief Iraqi election observer Viola von Cramon said the low turnout meant a lot.
“This is a clear political signal and one can only hope that it will be heard by politicians and the Iraqi political elite,” she told reporters.
Speaking from Washington DC, Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said that despite the low turnout, this was “in no way an indicator of illegitimacy of the election “.
“As long as no one who had the right to vote was prevented from voting, then the vote is legitimate. And that’s what happened, ”he added.
Von Cramon said she saw no irregularities or technical issues during the vote. “On the preparation side, everything was done well,” she said.
Rekar Muhammed, 23, an observer for the opposition New Generation party in Sulaimaniyah province, concurred with this opinion. “We did not find any irregularities or attempted electoral fraud. “
Some Iraqis were eager to vote in what is the fifth Iraqi parliamentary vote since 2003 – and are hoping for a change. In the northern city of Kirkuk, Abu Abdullah said he arrived to vote an hour before the polling stations opened.
“We expect the situation to improve considerably,” he said.
At least 167 parties and more than 3,200 candidates are vying for the 329 seats in parliament, according to the electoral commission. Iraqi elections are often followed by protracted talks over a president, prime minister and cabinet.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is not a candidate for the elections, but the negotiations that will follow could still allow him to obtain a second term. Al-Kadhimi, who is seen as pro-West, has no party to back him.
The Kurds have two main parties ruling the Kurdish Autonomous Region, and the Sunnis this time have two main blocs.
Al-Kadhimi told reporters as he voted: “I call on the Iraqi people: there is still time. Get out there and vote for Iraq and vote for your future.
Al-Kadhimi’s government called the vote early in response to the 2019 protests that toppled the previous administration.
Demonstrators’ demands included the withdrawal of a ruling elite that most Iraqis consider corrupt. The protests were brutally suppressed and some 600 people were killed in several months.
The country is safer than it has been in years and violent sectarianism has been less prevalent since Iraq defeated the armed group ISIL (ISIS) in 2017 with the help of an international military coalition and from Iran. But corruption and mismanagement have left many of the 40 million Iraqis without jobs, health care, education and electricity.
“Why won’t I vote? Because I don’t trust people. Those we elected, what did they do? asked Mohammed Hassan, a resident of Basra. “Look at the garbage, the grime… The plans of the previous government, where are they?
The United States, Gulf Arabs and Israel on one side and Iran on the other compete to influence Iraq, providing Tehran with a gateway to support armed allies in Syria and Lebanon. .
The 2003 US invasion overthrew Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, and catapulted to power the Shiite majority and the country’s Kurds, who were oppressed under Saddam.
It sparked years of sectarian violence, including ISIL’s takeover of a third of the country between 2014 and 2017.
Additional reporting by Dana Taib Menmy from Sulaimaniyah