Iraqis’ Frustration Over Broken Promises Keeps Voter Turnout Low

BAGHDAD — Iraqis voted Sunday in parliamentary elections meant to herald sweeping change to a dysfunctional political system that has dragged the country through almost two decades of deprivation.

A new electoral system made it easier this time for independent candidates to compete, but the vote was nonetheless expected to merely chip away at the edges of Iraq’s troubles. Traditional political factions, many of them attached to militias, have seemingly insurmountable power, and much of the electorate has become too disdainful of politicians to feel compelled to vote at all.

Turnout appeared to be low at many polling sites, where election workers put in place the new voting system, which uses biometric cards and other safeguards intended to limit the serious fraud that has marred past elections.

It was Iraq’s fifth parliamentary vote since the United States invaded 18 years ago and was likely to return the same political parties to power as in previous elections. And despite the sweeping anti-government protests that led officials to push the vote up by a year, Iraq’s system of dividing up government ministries among political parties along ethnic and sectarian lines will remain unchanged.

With more independent candidates vying for seats, voters on Sunday had morechoices — which for many were personal rather than political.

“The big parties have not done anything for Iraq, they looted Iraq,” said Mahdi Hassan el-Esa, 82, outside a polling station in the upper-middle-class Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad. 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.

Voting in Baghdad on Sunday. Election workers put in place a new voting system with safeguards meant to curtail fraud.Credit…Hadi Mizban/Associated Press

By late afternoon, the manager of the polling station said only 138 of almost 2,500 registered voters had turned up.

Across the country, Iraqis who did vote found schools converted into polling sites where peeling paint, battered desks and broken windows were visible signs of corruption so rampant it has resulted in a nation that provides few services to its people.

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

In the poor Sadr City neighborhood on Baghdad’s outskirts, Asia and Afaf Nuri, two sisters, said they voted for Haqouq, a new party that is affiliated with Kitaib Hezbollah, one of the biggest Iranian-backed militias. Asia Nuri said they chose that candidate because he works with her son.

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

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

“I do not want to participate in the corruption that is happening to this country,” he said, adding that people still had faith in Mr. Sadr but not in the corrupt politicians running in his name.

The mercurial Shiite cleric, who fought U.S. troops in 2004, has become a major political figure in Iraq, even when he disavows politics. This year after a devastating fire in a Covid hospital overseen by a Sadrist provincial health director, Mr. Sadr announced that his movement would not participate in elections. He later changed his mind, saying the next prime minister should be from the Sadr movement.

A poster of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr in Sadr City. The huge, largely Shiite neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad is a Sadr stronghold.Credit…Andrea DiCenzo for The New York Times

Sadr supporters at a rally in Baghdad on Friday night declared victory even before the voting began. “We will win,” they chanted, dancing around Tahrir Square.

Mr. Sadr entreated his supporters last week to each take 10 other voters to the polls. On Sunday, in contravention of election rules, cars draped with Sadr flags sat parked across from one of the voting centers in Sadr City while tuk-tuks raced around with Sadr banners streaming.

Almost every major political faction has been implicated in corruption, a major factor in Iraq’s poor public services.

Electricity in many provinces is provided only for two hours at a time. In the sweltering summers, there is no clean water. And millions of university graduates are without jobs.

All of that reached a tipping point two years ago when protests that began in the south of Iraq spread to Baghdad. Thousands of Iraqis went to the streets day after day to demand the fall of the government and its elite and a new political system that would deliver jobs and public services. They also demanded an end to Iranian influence in Iraq, where proxy militias are often more powerful than Iraq’s traditional security forces.

Security forces and militia gunmen have killed more than 600 unarmed protesters since demonstrations intensified in 2019. Militias are blamed for dozens of other targeted killings of activists.

The protesters achieved one of their goals when the government was forced to step down. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was appointed as a compromise candidate, pledging early elections. While he has fulfilled that promise with the weekend’s vote, he has not been able to deliver on others, including bringing the killers of protesters and activists to justice and reining in militias operating outside the law.

Many people who were involved in the protests were boycotting the elections, and on Sunday in Baghdad at many polling centers, few young voters were to be seen.

A demonstration in Baghdad last week commemorating activists killed by security forces and militia gunmen.Credit…Andrea DiCenzo for The New York Times

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, urged Iraqis to vote, saying in his message that although the election had some shortcomings, it remained the best way to avoid “falling into chaos and political obstruction.”

Voting in most cities was free of election violence, but the campaign has been marked by intimidation and attacks on candidates.

The body of a young activist in the southern province of Diwaniya was found floating in a river on Saturday, two days after he was abducted. The man, Hayder al-Zameli, had posted cartoons on social media critical of the followers of Iraqi parties.

Iraqi security forces went early to the polls, voting separately on Friday as fighter jets roared overhead to reinforce the heightened security for the event. The government was also shutting down its land borders and commercial airports from the night before voting to the day after.

Even among the security forces, normally the most loyal of supporters for the major parties, there were voices of dissent.

“To be honest, we have had enough,” said Army Maj. Hisham Raheem, voting in a neighborhood in central Baghdad. He said he would not vote for the people he chose last time and was backing an independent candidate.

At a popular falafel shop filled with security forces who had just voted, one soldier who asked to be called Abu Ali — the name his friends know him by — said he was voting for former Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

Mr. Maliki, while blamed for dragging Iraq back into sectarianism and fostering the rise of ISIS, is also given credit for sending government troops to break the hold of militias on Iraq’s coastal city of Basra and its lucrative ports.

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

Falih Hassan, Nermeen al-Mufti and Sura Ali contributed reporting.

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