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Iraqis’ Frustration Over Broken Promises Keeps Voter Turnout Low

BAGHDAD. On Sunday, Iraqis voted in parliamentary elections that marked a radical change in the dysfunctional political system that has led the country through nearly two decades of hardship.

The new electoral system made it easier for independent candidates to compete this time, but it was nonetheless expected that the vote would only diminish the severity of Iraq’s problems. Traditional political factions, many of which are affiliated with militias, appear to wield overwhelming power at first glance, and much of the electorate has become too dismissive of politicians to feel obligated to vote.

Turnout has been low in many polling stations, where election officials have implemented a new voting system that uses biometric cards and other security features designed to curb the serious fraud that spoiled past elections.

It was the fifth parliamentary vote in Iraq since the United States invasion 18 years ago, and is likely to bring the same political parties back to power as in previous elections. And despite widespread anti-government protests that prompted officials to increase their vote by a year, Iraq’s system of dividing government ministries between political parties along ethnic and religious lines will remain unchanged.

With more independent candidates running for seats, voters on Sunday had more a choice that for many was more personal than political.

“The big parties have done nothing for Iraq, they have plundered Iraq,” said Mahdi Hassan el-Esa, 82, outside a polling station in Baghdad’s Mansour district, where the upper middle class lives. 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 evening, the polling station director announced that only 138 of the nearly 2,500 registered voters had turned up.

Across the country, Iraqis who voted found schools turned into polling stations, where peeling paint, smashed desks and shattered windows were visible signs of corruption, so ferocious that it has resulted in the country providing little service to its people.

Despair kept some from participating in the polls, but others were motivated by the hope that individual candidates could make a difference in the lives of their families.

In a poor area of ​​Sadr City on the outskirts of Baghdad, the two sisters Assiya and Afaf Nuri said they had voted for Hakuk, a new party affiliated with Kitaib Hezbollah, one of the largest militias backed by Iran. Asia Nuri said that they chose this candidate because he works with her son.

While a majority of Sadr City voters were expected to vote for a political movement loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtad al-Sadr, voices of dissent existed even there.

“I am the son of this area and this city,” said Mohammad, an army officer who said he, his family and his friends were going to spoil their ballots in protest. He asked that only his name be used to avoid retaliation for criticizing the Sadr movement.

“I don’t want to get involved in the corruption that is happening in this country,” he said, adding that people still trust Mr. Sadr, but not the corrupt politicians acting on his behalf.

The fickle Shiite cleric who fought US forces in 2004 has become an important political figure in Iraq, even as he denies politics. This year, following a devastating fire at the Covid hospital, run by the provincial director of health for Sadrists, Mr. Sadr announced that his movement would not run in elections. He later changed his mind, saying that the next prime minister should be a representative of the Sadr movement.

Sadr’s supporters at a rally in Baghdad on Friday evening announced their victory even before the vote began. “We will win,” they chanted as they danced around Tahrir Square.

Last week, Sadr pleaded with his supporters to invite 10 other voters to the polls. On Sunday, in violation of election rules, cars draped with Sadr flags were parked in front of a polling station in Sadr City as tuk-tuk raced around with waving Sadr banners.

Almost every major political faction has been complicit in corruption, which is a major contributor to the poor quality of government services in Iraq.

Electricity in many provinces is provided for only two hours. There is no clean water in hot summer. And millions of university graduates were left without work.

This all reached a tipping point two years ago, when protests that began in southern Iraq spread to Baghdad. Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets day after day, demanding the overthrow of the government and its elite and a new political system that would provide jobs and public services. They also demanded an end to Iranian influence in Iraq, where proxy militias are often more powerful than traditional Iraqi security forces.

Security forces and militias have killed more than 600 unarmed protesters since demonstrations intensified in 2019. The militias are accused of dozens of other targeted killings of activists.

The protesters achieved one of their goals when the government was forced to resign. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Qadimi was named the compromise candidate who announced early elections. Despite fulfilling that promise by voting over the weekend, he failed to deliver on others, including bringing the killers of protesters and activists to justice and curbing outlaw militias.

Many protesters boycotted the elections, and there were few young voters in many polling stations in Baghdad on Sunday.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most respected Shiite cleric, urged Iraqis to vote, stating in his message that while the elections were flawed, they remain the best way to avoid “falling into chaos and political obstacles.”

Voting in most cities took place without electoral violence, but the campaign was marked by intimidation and attacks on candidates.

The body of a young activist in the southern province of Diwaniyah was found floating in a river on Saturday, two days after the abduction. The man, Haider al-Zameli, posted cartoons on social media criticizing Iraqi party supporters.

Iraqi security forces arrived at the polls early, voting separately on Friday as fighter jets roared overhead to bolster heightened security at the event. The government also closed its land borders and commercial airports from the night before voting until the next day.

Even among the security forces, which are usually the most loyal supporters of the mainstream parties, there were dissenting voices.

“To be honest, we’ve had enough,” Army Major Hisham Rahim said while voting in an area in central Baghdad. He said he would not vote for the people he chose last time and supports an independent candidate.

In a popular falafel store filled with just-voted security forces, one soldier who asked to be called Abu Ali, as his friends know him, said he was voting for former Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

Mr. Maliki, who is accused of re-engaging Iraq in sectarianism and fueling the rise of ISIS, is also credited with sending government troops to break out of militia control in the Iraqi coastal city of Basra and its lucrative ports.

“He’s bad, but there are worse ones,” Abu Ali said laughing.

Falih Hassan, Nermin al-Mufti and Sura Ali presented materials.

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