Will Iraq’s first provincial elections in 10 years mark a turning point?

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A man walks past a picture of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr during Iraq's provincial council elections, in Baghdad, Iraq, December 18, 2023. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad

On Monday, Iraqis participated in their first provincial council elections in a decade. The ruling Shi’ite Muslim alliance is anticipated to maintain its grip on power, despite a boycott by populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the main political rival. This election is viewed as a crucial test for Iraq’s fledgling democracy, established by the U.S. post-Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003, ahead of the 2025 parliamentary polls that will shape the nation’s power dynamics.

Polling concluded at 6 p.m. local time after 12 hours of voting, marked by minimal security incidents and reports of low voter turnout. Apathy among the predominantly young population has grown, fuelled by a perception that the country’s immense oil wealth is often mismanaged or misappropriated in one of the world’s most corrupt nations.

Despite calls from senior politicians for a high turnout, skepticism prevails. Ali Aswad, a 39-year-old vendor in central Baghdad, dismissed voting as a futile exercise, citing unfulfilled promises of democratic benefits. However, some voters like Aqeel al-Assadi, a 58-year-old headmaster, maintain faith in the system, expressing a belief in the potential for change.

With more than 16 million registered voters, a decrease from the 2021 parliamentary polls, attention is on the oil city of Kirkuk, experiencing elections for the first time since 2005 amid ethnic tensions. The Shi’ite alliance, particularly in the southern provinces, is expected to dominate, further solidifying its influence and access to state oil wealth.

Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a vocal critic of both Iran and the United States, has labelled the elections as reinforcing the corrupt political class’ dominance. The Coordination Framework, closely aligned with Iran, forms the largest bloc in parliament, as members of Sadr’s party withdrew.

The anticipated low voter turnout, viewed with relative indifference by the political elite, underscores public skepticism, with a prevailing sentiment that election outcomes won’t significantly alter the existing political landscape. Despite provincial elections providing the opportunity for civic participation, Iraqis’ apparent lack of interest or faith in the system and their government speaks volumes.

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