BAGHDAD — Iraq was poised to record its lowest turnout in history in an early parliamentary election Sunday, signaling the depth of public skepticism about whether the vote will bring change.

It was the sixth nationwide vote in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, gutted the state and installed a political system that has left the country mired in corruption and dysfunction.

In effect, Sunday’s election was a referendum on that system, and most Iraqis chose to stay home.

Despite a months-long campaign and millions of dollars spent by foreign governments including the United States to boost trust in the voting process, Iraq’s electoral commission said that turnout by midday was around 20 percent and that it had risen only slowly through the afternoon.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-
Kadhimi came to office last year promising early elections after mass protests ousted his predecessor, Adel Abdul Mahdi, in 2019. On Sunday, voters trickled to the polls through some of the streets where security forces had fired live ammunition into crowds and killed 600 during the months-long protests.

As the clock wound down on the vote, mosque loudspeakers urged people to head to the polls. Politicians used social media to do the same.

When the polls closed at 6 p.m., major hotels set off fireworks, as authorities had instructed, lighting the darkened skies above the silent streets.

“We have completed our duty and promised to hold fair and safe elections and we have provided the capabilities to make them successful,” Kadhimi posted in a message on his Twitter account.

The international community sent hundreds of election observers and focused attention on fraud prevention.

Among the efforts: Electronic voter cards, once used, must be suspended for 72 hours to prevent any ballot being cast twice. But reports had been circulating for weeks that political parties, including those backed by Iran, were buying votes ahead of time with clothing or cash payments. Candidates linked to the protest movement faced regular threats. Some were physically attacked. Bombs were placed outside the homes of others.

By midday Sunday, at least 77 people had been arrested for alleged violations, Iraq’s military said. But procedural irregularities did not appear to be widespread.

For many Iraqis, said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation, “it’s to do with confidence in the possibility of change. Confidence that the elections have any meaning for them.”

Security forces were fanned out across Iraq, and the special forces were on high alert. Jets patrolled the sky all morning. Although the Islamic State terrorist group has largely been defeated here, it still manages sporadic attacks. The group claimed responsibility for a car bombing in the city of Ramadi last week.

Iraq remains a country in crisis, with public services crumbling and the electricity grid on its knees. Armed groups linked to Iran and populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have killed scores of government critics. On Saturday, police in the southern city of Diwa­niya said they had found the body of a teenager, Hayder Mohamed al-Zamili, who had shared a cartoon on Facebook likening Sadr’s followers to sheep.

“How can we vote under these circumstances,” one young activist asked, exasperated. “If we join these elections, we tell the killers: ‘Okay, we buy into your system.’ But that’s a betrayal of all the things that we fought for.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern about militia retribution.

The vote is being held under a new election law aimed at giving political independents a greater chance of winning seats. In practice, the biggest winners are likely to be larger parties with loyal bases. Sadr’s party is expected to be the biggest victor.

“The powerful players remain powerful, and they have been since after 2003. Nothing has really changed despite various elections,” Jiyad said.

“You’ve got prime ministers that changed, cabinet members that changed, MPs in parliament that changed, but, really, the power brokers are fairly constant.”

Sadr had urged his followers to ensure that every voting-age adult in the family cast a ballot. In Baghdad’s sprawling Sadr City district, polling stations bustled with an energy that was markedly absent elsewhere. “We’re here for Sadr,” said Manshad Hamil, 45, a government employee. “He’s the only man to save Iraq.”

Sadr’s popularity is partly based on his family’s history of resistance. His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, was killed by Hussein’s regime, and Moqtada al-Sadr himself commanded loyalists in bloody battles against U.S. forces. His Mahdi Army roamed the streets as death squads during Iraq’s civil war, targeting civilians and public officials alike. On Sunday, Sadr’s office distributed videos of the cleric arriving to vote in a car that resembled the Mitsubishi in which his father and brothers were shot.

“It gave us great hope to see that,” said 31-year-old Ali Abbas, a construction worker. “We saw he drove his father’s car.”

But elsewhere in the capital, turnout at polling stations seemed light. In the Ur district, a polling center was so sparsely attended that the staff appeared surprised when new people entered. In Tahrir Square, once the epicenter of the protests, the faces of the dead stared solemnly from wall murals.

Analysts voiced pessimism about the elections, noting that although the protest movement caused Iraq’s political class to make concessions, it had not exerted sufficient pressure to force the elite to undertake meaningful changes that would increase trust in the system.

The early elections were “initially a concession offered by the elite under the pressure of the protest movement,” Harith Hasan, a scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center and a former adviser to Kadhimi, wrote in an analysis published last week. “But when this movement lost momentum and stopped being a serious threat, the elite felt no urge to make further concessions.”

“Therefore, it’s not going to change the status quo, but it may well lay the ground for the next crisis.”

In 2019, the Aqeeda school near Tahrir Square was a makeshift field hospital where medics treated wounded protesters. On Sunday, it was a polling center.

“We thought the crowds would be bigger than this,” said Salem Khalaf, 70, as he stood in the street outside. Voters came in slowly; few of them were young.

“My children aren’t going to vote,” said Khalid Rashid, Khalaf’s friend, who also had cast his ballot. “They don’t think it’s worth it.” Khalaf nodded.

“I have five children, and the only ones who voted are in the security forces,” Khalaf said. “The rest just said, ‘No way.’ ”