Iraqis vote in first provincial elections in a decade

AFP , Monday 18 Dec 2023

Iraqis voted Monday in the first provincial council elections in a decade, which are expected to strengthen powerful pro-Iran Shia Muslim groups.

An Iraqi woman votes in the first provincial council elections in a decade, at a polling station in
An Iraqi woman votes in the first provincial council elections in a decade, at a polling station in Sadr City in the capital Baghdad. AFP

 

The vote comes at a time of widespread public disillusionment in the oil-rich and corruption-plagued country of 43 million people.

Elections are being held in 15 provinces but not in the three that make up an autonomous Kurdish region in the north.

The vote is seen as a key test for the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.

Casting his ballot in Baghdad, the premier said the elections were important as the councils "represent a pillar of the executive and help the government in the implementing of its policies".

He urged Iraqis to elect "honest" and "competent" representatives.

Sudani rose to power just over a year ago backed by a coalition of pro-Tehran parties and has focused on developing public services and infrastructure ravaged by decades of conflict.

"Turnout to me is the ultimate gauge of satisfaction," Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, told AFP.

It will show "whether the Sudani government's economic populism -- the policy of giving out (public sector) jobs -- can be successful and can capture the young population", he said.

Polls opened at 7:00 am amid tight security and were due to close at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT).

Voters trickled in at two Baghdad polling stations visited by AFP.

"If I don't come and vote, and nobody else does either, there'll be chaos," civil servant Amin Saleh, 63, told AFP as he cast his ballot in the capital.

"We need someone to represent us. How do you achieve that except by voting?"

Some 17 million people are eligible to vote, with 6,000 candidates vying for 285 provincial council seats.

The councils, which were established after the US-led invasion of 2003, wield important powers, including selecting provincial governors and managing health, transport and education budgets.

Critics say they have become avenues for corruption and enable clientelism.

'Huge competition' 
 

The vote is expected to consolidate the position of the ruling Coordination Framework coalition, an Iran-aligned bloc that brings together Shia Islamist parties with factions of Hashed al-Shaabi, a network of former paramilitary units integrated into the regular army.

For some heavyweights within the alliance, the elections are an opportunity to "prove they have a social base and that they are popular" following disappointing results in the 2021 national elections, Mansour said.

He added that there was "huge competition right now" among Shia groups for the provincial governor posts.

Influential Shia cleric and political kingmaker Moqtada Sadr has joined the opposition and is boycotting the vote.

The provincial councils were initially abolished in late 2019 as a concession to anti-government protests.

But Sudani's government subsequently re-established them, with Monday's elections the first since 2013.

"What use are these elections to us?" said Baghdad taxi driver Abu Ali, 45, who declined to give his full name.

"The years pass, elections come around again, the candidates change, and our situation stays the same."

To reflect Iraq's multi-confessional, multi-ethnic population, 10 seats are reserved for the Christian, Yazidi and Sabian minorities.

A 25 percent quota has ensured that 1,600 of the candidates are women.

Observers are keeping a close eye on Kirkuk, an oil-rich northern province where historic rivalries between parties representing its Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen communities could resurface.

Despite drone attacks against US-led coalition troops by pro-Iranian armed groups, regional tensions and the fallout of the Israel-Hamas war are not expected to weigh on the results.

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