Iraqis vote in first elec­tion since fall of Is­lamic State

Turnout is low in bal­lot­ing to shape na­tion’s di­rec­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY TAMER EL-GHOBASHY AND MUSTAFA SALIM tamer.el­ghobashy@wash­post.com

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 alAbadi 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.

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.

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 rightwing 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 alSadr, 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.”

BRAM JANSSEN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

An elec­tion vol­un­teer points out the place where a woman from Sin­jar may cast her vote Satur­day in Iraq’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions. The woman was at a polling site in a camp for dis­placed peo­ple out­side Ir­bil. The re­sults of the vot­ing are ex­pected to...

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