The elections, the fifth since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime following the 2003 US-led invasion, have been brought forward, bowing to the demands of widespread pro-reform protests that rocked the country in October 2019.
The election was originally due to be held in May next year.
Iraqis will choose from 3,249 contenders for the 329-seat parliament. Out of about 25 million registered voters, a little more than 23 million have updated their electoral records to become eligible to take part.
“We hope [to see] a wide participation in the elections,” Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi told Iraqis in a televised speech on Friday.
“We have a big and historic opportunity that we can’t miss,” said Mr Al Kadhimi. He took over in May last year after the resignation of Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who promised to leave his post a few weeks after the October 2019 protests began.
Mr Al Kadhimi urged Iraqis “to elect a Council of Representatives that is made of efficient figures, not tainted by corruption, and who can shoulder responsibility for thorough reform”.
Iraq’s 2018 elections were mired in allegations of voter fraud and corruption. The turnout was at a record low, with only 44.5 per cent of eligible voters casting ballots. Until then, no election since 2003 had had a turnout below 60 per cent.
The PM assured Iraqis that his government has completed all the “basic needs to make the election a success and protect and manage it in a way to safeguard the will of the voters”.
In another concession to the youth-led protests, Iraq’s parliament endorsed a new law that paves the way for independent candidates to join the legislative body, a move hailed as a success in a multiparty system.
Unlike in previous elections, Iraq will be divided into several constituencies instead of being treated as one. The former system allowed political parties to take seats depending on their share of the national vote.
The new law does not allow political parties to run unified lists, something that helped them sweep up parliamentary seats in a specific province. Instead, the seats will go to whoever gets the most votes in the electoral districts.
That has encouraged independent candidates to run as individuals vying for a seat, or within newly-founded political parties.
However, the elections are not expected to change the country’s political landscape as the same parties – mainly those with militias – will continue to hold the balance of power after the vote.
Sistani calls on Iraqis to vote
Disillusioned Iraqis have therefore called for a boycott of the election, saying it will bring no change and will conclude with the same corrupt officials and unruly Iran-backed militias in positions of power. The latter stand accused of killing and kidnapping hundreds of activists.
Alarmed by calls to boycott the vote, Shiite spiritual leader and cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani has encouraged Iraqis to vote.
“The supreme religious authority encourages everyone to participate consciously and responsibly in the coming elections,” said Mr Al Sistani in a response to an inquiry from a group of followers.
“Although it is not without some shortcomings, it remains the safest way to cross the country into a future that is hoped to be better than the past, and through it, avoids the risk of falling into abyss of chaos and political obstruction."
The call from the religious leader is expected to make the turnout higher than in previous elections as millions of Iraqis follow Mr Al Sistani.
“I didn’t want to vote, but since the Marjiyaa [supreme religious authority] says ‘cast your ballots,’ I will,” Salih Mahdi, 40, a Shiite taxi driver in the southern city of Nasiriyah, told The National.
But Mr Mahdi remains convinced that “the situation will not be changed since the same political parties are still at the helm, stealing and damaging the country with their loyalty to outside powers”.
On Friday, polling stations opened for security forces, internally displaced people and prisoners to cast their ballots early.
Details on the turnout and violations on the special voting day are yet to be announced by the country’s Independent High Electoral Commission.
The pro-reform protests have fizzled because of a government crackdown, targeted killings, kidnapping and harassment by Shiite militias as well as the coronavirus pandemic.
Nearly 600 protesters were killed and thousands were wounded as protests spread across the south and centre of the country, from the port city of Basra to the capital, Baghdad.