Iraqis took to the polls on Saturday for the first time since the country declared victory over Isis, but there was little hope that the election would stabilise a country beset by conflicts, economic hardship and corruption.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who declared in December that Isis had been pushed out of the territory it controlled, is trying to fend off powerful Shia groups that would pull the country closer to Tehran.
Iraqis expressed pride at the prospect of voting for the fourth time since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, but turnout appeared low before polls closed at 6pm local time. Reporters at polling stations in several cities said voter turnout appeared to be about 30 per cent, citing sources in provincial offices of the Independent High Electoral Commission. Turnout in the 2014 vote was about 60 per cent.
Mr Abadi partially lifted a security curfew in an effort to improve turnout. Nearly all civilian vehicles had been banned from Baghdad’s streets on Saturday morning, and many voters complained of having to walk more than two miles to reach polling stations.
Results are expected within the next 48 hours, according to the independent body that oversees Iraq’s election, but negotiations to choose a prime minister tasked with forming a government are set to drag on for months.
Voters will pass their verdict on Mr Abadi, who has achieved the delicate task of maintaining relationships with both of Iraq’s main allies who are otherwise arch enemies: Iran and the United States.
Whoever wins the election will have to contend with the fallout from US president Donald Trump‘s decision to pull out of a nuclear deal with Iran, a move Iraqis fear could turn their country into a theatre of conflict between Washington and Tehran.
Mr Abadi, who came to power four years ago after Isis seized a third of the country, received US military support for Iraq’s army to defeat the jihadis as he gave free rein to Iran to back Shi’ite militias fighting on the same side.
But now that the military campaign is over he faces political threats from two main challengers: his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, and the leader of the main Shia paramilitary group, Hadi al-Amiri, both closer than he is to Iran.
Iraq remains divided among its three main ethnic and religious groups – the majority Shia Arabs and minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds – at odds for decades. Past election outcomes have hinged on whether leading Shia parties could obtain enough seats to marginalise the other groups.
Both the US and UK released statements as the polls closed, congratulating Iraq on the election but calling for an “inclusive” government.
Iran has wide sway in Iraq as the primary Shia power in the region. But the United States – which invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, occupied it until 2011 and sent troops back to help fight Isis in 2014 – also has deep influence.
Iran’s clout has caused resentment among Sunnis as well as some Shias, who have grown tired of religious leaders, parties and militias and want technocrats to rule the country.
Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric spoke out on the issue of voter participation on Saturday afternoon, encouraging Iraqis to vote “to prevent the arrival of a corrupt parliament”.
“The lack of participation will give the opportunity for others to reach parliament and they will be very far from the aspirations of the people,” said Sheikh Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai, the representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on local Iraqi television from Karbala. Ayatollah Sistani has repeatedly encouraged Iraqis to vote into power a new political class to combat corruption. Mr Abadi is seen as the narrow frontrunner, but victory is far from certain. A British-educated engineer with no powerful political machine of his own when he took office, he solidified his standing with the victory over Isis.
Although he has failed so far to improve the limping economy, his supporters say he is best placed to keep more overtly sectarian political leaders in check.
“He’s non-sectarian and we like him,” said Um Laila in West Mosul, which suffered some of the heaviest damage during the war against Isis. “He liberated Mosul.”
Even if Mr Abadi’s Victory Alliance wins the most seats, he still must negotiate a coalition government, which has to be formed within 90 days of the election.
One of his principal rivals, Mr Amiri, 63, spent more than two decades fighting Saddam from exile in Iran, and leads the biggest group of volunteer forces that fought Isis. Victory for Mr Amiri would be a clear win for Iran.
Opponents accuse Mr Amiri’s Badr Organisation of abusing Sunni Muslims during sectarian conflicts, and of taking orders from Iran. They say he achieved little in the powerful post of transport minister from 2010 to 2014.
His supporters say he was pivotal in defeating Isis and would offer stronger leadership than Mr Abadi.
“I voted for Amiri because he is a clean leader. Without him Daesh [Isis] would have been here,” said Raid Sabah, 39, who is struggling to make a living as a taxi driver in the southern city of Basra. “Abadi didn’t do anything.”
Other Iraqis are disillusioned with war heroes and politicians who have failed to restore state institutions and provide badly needed health and education services.
“We need neither tanks nor jets. We need only the ballot paper through which we can rectify the political process which was aborted by those who governed Iraq,” said labourer Khalid al-Shami, 50, at a polling station in Baghdad.
Many of the poor have turned to Muqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand Shia cleric who led a violent uprising against the US occupation from 2003 to 2011 but has since remade himself as an opponent of the traditional religious parties, striking an unlikely alliance with the Communists and other secular groups.
“We had hoped that lives will change but Abadi and Maliki didn’t do anything for us. We live in poverty, have no jobs and state services,” said 36-year old Hussein Yousef, the Shia cleric.
Mr Maliki, who stepped aside in 2014 after Isis swept across the country, is seeking a comeback, casting himself as a Shia champion. Opponents say his sectarian policies during eight years in power created the atmosphere that enabled Isis to gain sympathy among Sunnis.
Since Saddam’s fall, the post of prime minister has been reserved for a Shia, the speaker of parliament has been a Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd – all three chosen by parliament.
More than 7,000 candidates in 18 provinces are running this year for 329 parliamentary seats. More than 24 million of Iraq’s 37 million people are eligible to vote.
An election observer and two voters were killed by a bomb attached to their car in a Sunni Arab region south of the oil city of Kirkuk, in an attack security sources linked to the election. Isis claimed that it was behind the attack
In the ruins of West Mosul, where Isis proclaimed its so-called caliphate in 2014 and fighters held out for most of last year in the face of the biggest battle of the post-Saddam era, turnout appeared strong, even though transport was shut for security reasons and voters had difficulty reaching the polls.
“We need new faces not this group of corrupt politicians currently in Baghdad,” said Ahmed Noor, a shop owner.
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