Iraqis go to the polls on Sunday in an assembly election, the fifth since the US ousted the secular Baathist government in 2003 and installed a sectarian government dominated by parties tied to pro-Iran militias.
Prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called the election a year early in response to the October 2019 rising against entrenched politicians who, protesters claim, have failed to deliver decent governance, water, electricity, jobs and prosperity to an oil rich country.
More than 600 protesters were killed during peak demonstrations and scores of activists kidnapped and murdered.
The poll is to be conducted under a new election law demanded by protesters seeking to reduce the power of ruling blocs. This law scrapped the 18 provincial constituencies and list voting and mandated voting for individual candidates in 83 constituencies.
More than 3,320 candidates are contesting 329 seats, one-quarter allocated to women and nine to minorities. There are some October activists standing among the 780 independents while others and the Communist Party are boycotting. They argue the vote cannot be free and fair since during the campaign reformist candidates have been threatened, harassed and killed.
While 25 million Iraqis have the right to vote, a low turnout is predicted. Political researcher for a US think tank Marsin Alshamary told France 24 television the election is being held in a climate of “apathy and despair, especially among young people. Most people believe these elections will achieve nothing.”
While reformist activists may gain some seats, ruling parties are expected to retain power. The bloc formed by nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has adopted an anti-Iran/anti-US platform, could remerge as the largest since he has the support of impoverished Shia Muslims.
Experts argue many Iraqis are fed up with parties formed by Iran-backed militias and successive governments’ failure to control them, but the Fatah bloc headed by Hadi al-Amiri, Iran’s chief ally, could remain in second place.
Voters may abandon other Shia parties led by former prime ministers Haider al-Abadi, who was seen as ineffective, and Nuri al-Maliki, who is accused of corruption, sectarianism and paving the way for the Islamic State terror group to seize one-one third of the country – territory that has since been regained.
Divisions among Sunni leaders have weakened their appeal while the Kurds could, once again, emerge as power brokers.
Although 600 UN and EU observers are set to deploy, balloting and counting votes could be disrupted by violence and losing candidates could challenge the result if they fail to win seats.
As the Sadrists and Fatah could secure most seats, after potentially prolonged negotiations they could choose as prime minister a weak independent, such as Mr Kadhimi or his predecessor, Adil Abdel Mahdi. The Kurds, reportedly, seek to reappoint incumbent president Barham Salih.