The polls closed at 1500 GMT after 11 hours of voting. Results are expected within the next 24 hours, according to the independent body overseeing the Iraqi elections. Negotiations over the election of a prime minister charged with forming a government are likely to drag on for weeks or even months.
The election was the sixth since Saddam Hussein was overthrown after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many were skeptical that independent protest movement candidates would stand a chance against entrenched parties and politicians, many of them from powerful armed militias.
Minutes after the polling stations closed, fireworks organized by the Baghdad city government went off on the city’s landmark, Tahrir Square, where demonstrators had pitched tents for several months from October 2019. The protests fizzled out in February of the following year due to the security measures and later the coronavirus pandemic.
Today the place is largely empty. The country faces major economic and security challenges, and while most Iraqis yearn for change, few expect it to happen because of the elections.
Muna Hussein, a 22-year-old film makeup artist, said she boycotted the election because she did not feel that there was “a safe environment with uncontrolled guns everywhere,” a reference to the mainly Shiite militia operated by the neighboring one Iran will be supported.
“In my opinion it is not easy to hold free and fair elections in the current circumstances,” she said.
Amir Fadel, a 22-year-old car dealer, disagreed. “I don’t want the same faces and the same parties to return,” he said after casting his vote in the Karradah district of Baghdad.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, whose chances of a second term are determined by the election results, called on Iraqis to vote in large numbers.
“Go out and choose and change your future,” said al-Kadhimi, repeating the phrase “Get out” three times after casting his vote at a school in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone that houses foreign embassies and government offices.
Under Iraqi law, the winner of Sunday’s vote can elect the country’s next prime minister, but it is unlikely that any of the competing coalitions can win a clear majority. This will require a lengthy process with negotiations in the back room to select a prime minister with a consensus and agree on a new coalition government. After the 2018 elections, it took eight months of political wrangling to form a government.
Groups made up of the majority of Shiite Muslims in Iraq dominate the electoral landscape, with a close race expected between the influential Shiite cleric of Iraq Moqtada al-Sadr and the Fatah alliance led by paramilitary leader Hadi al-Ameri in the final Elections took second place.
The Fatah Alliance consists of parties and is connected to the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of mostly pro-Iranian Shiite militias that became known during the war against the extremist Sunni Islamic State group. It includes some of the most heavily supported factions by Iran, such as the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia. Al-Sadr, a black turbaned nationalist leader, is also close to Iran but publicly opposes its political influence.
The previous Sunday, al-Sadr had cast his vote in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, which was swarmed by local journalists. Then he drove off in a white limousine without comment. Al-Sadr, a populist with an immense following among the Iraqi working class Shiites, took the lead in the 2018 elections and won a majority of the seats.
The elections are the first since the fall of Saddam to be held without a curfew, reflecting the significantly improved security situation in the country for decades following the defeat of ISIS in 2017.
More than 250,000 security guards across the country were tasked with protecting the voice. Soldiers, police and counterterrorism forces swarmed in front of the polling stations, some of which were surrounded by barbed wire. Voters were scanned and searched.
As a security precaution, Iraq closed its airspace and land border crossings from Saturday night to Monday morning and increased its air force.
For the first time, the elections will take place on Sunday under a new electoral law that divides Iraq into smaller constituencies – another demand from activists who participated in the 2019 protests – and allows for more independent candidates.
In the 2018 election, only 44% of eligible voters cast their vote, a record low, and the results have been widely controversial. There are concerns about a similar or even lower turnout.
In a tea shop in Karradah, one of the few open, candidate Reem Abdulhadi came in to ask if people had cast their vote.
“I will give my voice to Umm Kalthoum, the singer, she’s the only one who deserves it,” joked the tea seller, referring to the late Egyptian singer who was loved by many in the Arab world. He said he will not vote and does not believe in the political process.
After a few words, Abdulhadi gave the man, who wanted to remain anonymous, a card with her name and number in it in case he changed his mind. He put it in his pocket.
“Thanks, I’ll keep it as a souvenir,” he said.
At that moment, a low-speed, high-speed military aircraft flew overhead with a screeching sound. “Hear this. That sound is terror. It reminds me of war, not an election, ”he added.