Iraq's first local elections in a decade marred by low turnout amid calls for boycott

Few voters seen at polling stations for first council elections since 2013

Kurdish women show their ink-stained fingers after casting their votes at a polling station in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Monday. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Results: Iran-backed political parties sweep Iraq's local elections in Shiite heartland

Iraq held on Monday its first provincial council elections in more than a decade, marred by low voter turnout as citizens chose to stay away from the polls amid calls for a boycott, mainly from influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr.

The atmosphere at polling stations across the country reflected a prevailing sense of disillusionment and frustration with the political elite as well as the persistent Shiite-Shiite political wrangling.

About 6,000 candidates vied for 285 seats nationwide, according to the Independent High Electoral Commission. These included 10 seats reserved for ethnic and religious minorities, namely Christians, Yazidis and Sabians.

The field included about 1,600 women, for whom a quarter of the seats are reserved.

About 17 million people were eligible to vote at the 7,166 polling stations set up for the election.

The vote took place in only 15 of the 18 provinces. Three provinces, which form the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, operate under a separate autonomous system.

Late on Monday, the Iraqi News Agency announced that overall voter turnout was 41 per cent. The Independent High Electoral Commission had expected the final turnout to exceed 30 per cent.

As the polls closed at 6.00pm local time, Interior Minister Lt Gen Abdul Amir Al Shammari and the commission said voting had passed without major security incidents or technical issues.

Initial results will be announced on Tuesday, the commission said.

After casting his ballot in Baghdad, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani urged Iraqis to elect “honest” and “competent” representatives.

Mr Al Sudani said the elections were important as the councils “represent a pillar of the executive and help the government in the implementing of its polices”.

The Prime Minister's calls did not resonate in some parts of the country.

“All are incompetent and thieves,” Mohammed Jassim told The National while serving customers at his sweet tea kiosk in the eastern Baghdad suburb of Sadr City. “Why should I bother myself and vote for them?”

Few candidate posters were seen on the streets of Sadr City, a stronghold of support for Mr Al Sadr, and polling stations were empty at noon.

“Whatever Sayyed Moqtada tells us, we will follow,” Mr Jassim, 22, said.

Khalil Binwan, 55, argued that while the political system had its flaws, boycotting the election only weakened the democratic process.

“I'm not boycotting, this is my right,” Mr Binwan said as he proudly displayed his ink-stained finger after voting in Habibiyah district.

“Should we hinder efforts to build a state or contribute to them? If the official is corrupt, he will be removed by the elections, not through violence,” he said, adding that he had voted for a new face.

Overall, there was only a trickle of voters at polling stations by midday, prompting political leaders and clerics to call on their supporters to vote.

“The turnout may be limited because of widespread corruption and disappointment among the public with the political elite,” Hadi Jalo Marie, chairman of the Political Decision think tank in Baghdad, told The National.

Mr Al Sadr's move will pave the way for his Iran-backed rivals to strengthen their presence in nine Shiite-dominated provinces in central and southern Iraq, as well as Baghdad, Mr Marie said.

The election boycott “diminishes its legitimacy domestically and internationally, and reduces the influence of corrupt individuals in our beloved Iraq”, Mr Al Sadr told his supporters last month.

Despite his strong showing in the 2021 parliamentary election, winning 73 seats out 329 seats, Mr Al Sadr ordered his MPs to resign and withdraw from the country’s political process.

That move allowed his rivals in the Co-ordination Framework, an umbrella group of Tehran-allied militias and parties that suffered major losses in the election, to form the government.

“What happened inside Parliament will be seen again in the provincial councils where Co-ordination Framework factions will control the councils in the Shiite provinces and Baghdad,” Mr Jalo said.

Disillusioned with the political landscape, some Iraqis argue that previous elections have not brought tangible change, with promises unfulfilled and corruption persisting at various levels of government.

“You can’t make the same mistake twice,” Rafid Aziz, 33, a baker in Baghdad, told The National.

“When casting your ballot, you are not helping your province and its residents but the corrupt politicians to control more seats and more funds.”

Taxi driver Ahmed Sabah disagreed.

“I will do my share and vote for the one who I trust and who can serve us,” Mr Sabah, 41, said. “If I don't go, I will give a chance to a bad politician to win.”

Iraq's Sunnis entered the elections fragmented, especially after the dismissal of Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi, while the main Kurdish parties competed against each other in the ethnically mixed northern province of Kirkuk.

After the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, parliamentary and provincial council elections were introduced as the main pillar for democracy.

The councils play a vital role as the subnational legislative authority, as well as devising localised development plans. They have the power to elect and replace provincial governors and make special appointments.

They wield important powers including allocating budgets for health, transport and education. However, they have limited power in approving projects and spending.

When youth-led, pro-reform protests broke out in central and southern Iraq in October 2019, one of their main demands was the dissolution of provincial councils, which they accused of widespread corruption.

In a bid to appease the protesters, parliament bowed to that demand and decided to disband provincial councils by the end of 2019.

However, the Supreme Federal Court ruled in June 2021 that this was unconstitutional and, instead, considered the councils frozen.

The provincial elections will be held under a hotly debated electoral system last used in 2018 and abolished in 2020 to calm a nationwide protest movement.

The Sainte-Lague system was reintroduced by parliament in March, despite an outcry from small opposition parties. It has also been opposed by Mr Al Sadr.

The system divides the country into 18 constituencies, making it difficult for smaller political parties to compete on a provincial basis.

A 2021 law introduced by former prime minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi divided the country into 83 constituencies, helping small parties to win seats in Parliament by mobilising support at a local level.

The last provincial council elections were held in 2013.

Updated: December 20, 2023, 11:00 AM