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Iraqis vote in first national election since toppling of ISIS, but turnout was low

Iraqi President Fuad Masum, center, casts his vote Saturday in the heavily fortified Green Zone of Baghdad. (Karim Kadim/AP)

NAJAF, Iraq — Iraqis on Saturday voted in their first national election since the Islamic State upended the political and social order in the country, casting ballots that will help determine how Iraq’s next government leans in a region increasingly marked by fierce global rivalries.

Nearly 7,000 candidates, representing conservative, Islamist, liberal, secular, communist and military political streams, are vying for 329 seats in Iraq’s parliament and for the upper hand in electing the nation’s next prime minister and president.

Saturday’s poll was devoid of the usual terrorist violence that has marred previous Iraqi elections, and there were few reports of irregularities. But calls to boycott the contest over a lack of substantive policy debate appeared to resonate with voters, and turnout was low. Iraq’s election commission said late Saturday that only 44 percent of the 22 million eligible voters participated — a steep decline from 62 percent in both 2014 and 2010.

The United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia will be closely watching the results, which are expected to be announced Monday. Over the past four years, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has maintained a delicate balance between Iranian and U.S. interests in his country while nourishing a reopening of political and economic ties with the Saudi monarchy.

Some of his chief opponents are closely aligned with Iran, setting up the possibility that Iraq could firmly place itself in Tehran’s camp at a time when Washington and Riyadh have dramatically stepped up their isolation of Iran. Last week, Iraqi politicians said they were concerned that the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal could push Iran to impose itself more forcefully in Iraq.

Iraqi election seen as a contest between Iran’s challenger and America’s incumbent

But in Iraq’s polling places, voters said their concerns were confined to their neighborhoods, towns and cities: They spoke of needing jobs, security and stability without the spasms of violence and sectarian hatred that they have endured for more than a decade since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

“We are looking for services and security and most importantly job opportunities for all us young people,” said Zaid Sahib, 25. “We are the priority.”

Early Saturday, Abadi’s office released photos of him being patted down by a security officer outside a polling place in his home district in Baghdad, smiling broadly before heading inside to vote.

It was a striking contrast with his opponents and other members of Iraq’s political elite who voted in the swank al-Rashid Hotel inside Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone. Abadi’s office has repeatedly sought to portray the prime minister as an Iraqi everyman who eschews the elitist trappings of power.

His main opponents include his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, and Hadi al-Ameri, the head of one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite militias whose popularity soared for his role in fighting the Islamic State. Both Maliki and Ameri are closer to Iran than Abadi and have criticized the sitting prime minister for his pro-U.S. stances.

What Iraq’s election means for its Shiite militias

None of the candidates is expected to win an outright majority and probably will need to enter into post-election coalitions to have enough votes to elect a prime minister — a process that has taken months after recent elections.

Iraq’s next leader faces a slew of challenges stemming from the ruinous occupation of the Islamic State and the nearly four-year war to expel the militant group. More than 2 million Iraqis remain displaced from cities overwhelmingly damaged by the fighting. Some of them have been prevented from returning to their homes by a community that has branded them Islamic State sympathizers, effectively creating a pariah class of people with nowhere to turn.

Iraq’s government has estimated that it needs $80 billion to restore the cities damaged by the combat and has relied heavily on donations from the international community to raise the funds. Iraq’s coffers have been drained by a combination of wartime spending and oil prices that have fallen dramatically over the past three years.

Many of the candidates in Saturday’s elections said they will work to make Iraq’s economy less dependent on oil revenue while encouraging foreign investment and supporting the growth of a private sector to create new jobs. All of that will be underpinned by a systematic effort to eradicate the pervasive corruption that has plagued Iraq’s public sector.

The result of Saturday’s vote will probably play a role in whether U.S. forces maintain a presence in Iraq. Abadi strongly supports keeping U.S. troops to advise and train Iraq’s military and police while his opponents say they want to significantly reduce and regulate the activities of those forces.

This year’s election has been characterized by mixed feelings over the prospects of change. Some voters, buoyed by Abadi’s announcement of the defeat of the Islamic State in December, see this vote as the beginning of a historic era in Iraq. Candidates eschewed traditional sectarian political rhetoric for a more conciliatory message of nationalism and inclusivity.

Abadi’s ticket, Nasr, or Victory, embraced this change most ardently, leading many analysts and experts to predict that he will probably win the most seats — but not quite enough to secure anything close to a majority. The centrist political mood was even embraced by traditionally right-wing groups such as the pro-Iran Shiite militias running under a large coalition called Fatah, or Conquest, led by Ameri.

It was also been a period of reinvention. Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, once one of the most ardent opponents of the U.S. occupation and who commands a sizable militia, has emerged as one of Iraq’s most enthusiastic reformers, calling on Iran to step back from Iraqi internal affairs.

His electoral list, which includes a coalition with the Iraqi Communist Party, is a roster of first-time candidates — a risky gamble for a movement that holds a significant bloc of seats in parliament.

In his home town of Najaf, Sadr’s political gambit did not impress a group of people who held small demonstrations calling for a boycott of the election.

Ahmed Riyad and Amir Abed emerged from a polling station in a middle school with their fingers clean, missing the trademark purple ink used to indicate that someone has voted. Abed said he had come with the intention of spoiling his ballot in protest, but Iraq’s first-time electronic voting system had thwarted his demonstration.

Riyad said he was there to support his friend and was formally refraining from the entire process.

“We haven’t seen change, and voting will not bring change,” said Abed, 23, a construction worker. “Even if the old faces are voted out, even worse new faces will replace them.”

Riyad said while the elections lists may have new candidates, all the tickets are headed by known politicians.

“None of them satisfy me,” said the 22-year-old salesman.

At the same voting station, Saleh Salman, a 29-year-old university employee, said he had voted for the local candidate on Abadi’s list because he knows him personally and believes he will do a good job. 

He was less enthusiastic about Abadi himself, saying he remained hopeful that the incumbent prime minister will “fix some mistakes, like reducing public salaries, in his second term.”

At another polling place in this religiously conservative city, Hasna Hashim, 70, smiled and held up her ink-stained finger as her son gently pushed her wheelchair forward. She bragged that she had used the same wheelchair to vote in every election since 2005, when Iraq began having national votes.

She said she voted for Ameri’s ticket, saying that he had led the fight against the Islamic State and that she believed in him to provide the security she craves.

“He’s our father,” she said. “He’s the one we depend on, only after God.”

Her son, Salam Fadel, 38, grinned as his mother spoke.

He had voted for a secular ticket called Tamadon, or Civilized Coalition.

“We tried the Islamists,” he said. “And that hasn’t done us any good.”

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