BAGHDAD , -- Iraq closed its airspace Sunday and scrambled its aircraft force as voters headed to the polls for a parliament that, despite widespread skepticism and some Iraqis hoping, will deliver reforms following decades of conflict.
The original date for the vote was next year, but it was moved forward due to popular protests in Baghdad and in the southern provinces in late 2019 Tens of thousands protested rising unemployment, corruption and poor services. Security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to smother them. In just a few short months, more than 600 people were killed and many others were injured.
Although the authorities called early elections and gave in, many protesters and young activists took part in the demonstrations and later demanded a boycott of the polls.
Many have been discouraged from participating by a series of kidnappings , and targeted assassinations which resulted in the deaths of more than 35 persons. Deep skepticism about the ability of independent candidates to defeat established parties and politicians is common amid widespread apathy. Many of these are backed by armed militias.
"I voted because I believe there should be change. After casting his ballot in Baghdad’s Karradah district, Amir Fadel (22-year-old car dealer) said that he didn't want the same faces or same parties to return.
There are 3,449 candidates competing for 329 of the 329 parliamentary seats . This will be the sixth parliamentary election since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003, following the U.S.-led invasion and subsequent sectarian-based power sharing political system.
Over 250,000 national security personnel were assigned to protect the vote. Anti-terrorism and police forces, as well as soldiers, were deployed to the polling stations. Some of these were also surrounded by barbed wire. Voters were searched and patted.
Barham Salih, the President of Iraq, and Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the Prime Minister of Iraq, urged Iraqis not to vote.
Al-Kadhimi said, "Get out and vote. Change your reality for Iraq and your future." He repeated the phrase three times after casting his vote at a school within Baghdad's Green Zone, which is home to foreign embassies as well as government offices.
In 2018, only 44% of eligible voters voted, which was a record low and a contestable result. This time, there are concerns about a lower or similar turnout.
Midday turnout was still low, and streets were mostly empty by this point. Reem Abdulhadi, a candidate, walked into a Karradah tea shop to inquire if people had cast their votes.
The tea vendor said, "I will give mine vote to Umm Kalthoum the singer, she's the only one who should it," referring to the beloved Egyptian singer. He stated that he would not participate in the election and did not believe in the political process.
He said, "Thank you. I will keep it as souvenir."
A low-flying, high speed military aircraft flew overhead, making a loud screeching sound. This is what you should be hearing. This is terror. He added that it reminded him of war and not elections.
Local journalists surrounded Moqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shiite cleric from Iraq, as he cast his vote in Najaf's Shiite holy town. The cleric drove off in a white sedan, without commenting. Al-Sadr is a populist with a large following among Iraq's Shiites working class. He won a majority of the seats in the 2018 elections.
The electoral landscape is dominated by groups drawn from Iraq's Shiite Muslims majority. A tight race is expected between al-Sadr and the Fatah Alliance, headed by Hadi al-Ameri (second in the previous election).
The Fatah Alliance is made up of parties that are affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces. This umbrella group, which consists mainly of pro-Iran Shiite militias, rose to prominence during war against Sunni extremist Islamic State. It also includes the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of the most pro-Iran factions. Al-Sadr is a black-turbaned nationalist who is also close to Iran but publicly rejects its political influence.
The two major Kurdish parties that dominated the Iraqi autonomous northern Kurdistan area were the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
This election marks the first time since Saddam's fall that there has been no curfew. It is a reflection of the much improved security situation in the country after the defeat of IS 2017. The country has been plagued for decades by bomb attacks and fighting, which made it difficult to vote in the past.
Security precaution: Iraq closed its airspace, land border crossings, and scrambled its aircraft force between Saturday night and Monday morning.
Another first is Sunday's election under a new election code. This law divides Iraq into smaller constituents, another demand from the activists who participated in the 2019 protests. It also allows for more independent candidates.
An earlier U.N. Security Council resolution authorized an increased team to monitor the election. Up to 600 international observers will be present, 150 of which will come from the United Nations. Over 24 million Iraqis, which is roughly 38 million people, are eligible to vote.
Iraq also introduces biometric cards to voters for the first time. However, despite all this, there are still claims of vote buying and intimidation.
According to the head of Iraq's electoral committee, initial results for elections will be announced within 24hrs.