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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Iraq elections 2018: Muted optimism ahead of first poll since ISIS defeat 

Iraqis are hoping that after 15 bloody years their ballots can bring peace.

An Iraqi security member votes at a polling station in Baghdad. Thaier Al Sudani / Reuters
An Iraqi security member votes at a polling station in Baghdad. Thaier Al Sudani / Reuters

Early voting began Thursday for Iraq’s security forces and diaspora as the country prepares for its first parliamentary elections since the defeat of ISIS.

The main election will be the fourth vote since the 2003 US invasion toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Iraqis are hoping that after 15 bloody years their ballots can bring peace.

Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi is running for re-election after taking office in September 2014, after much of the Iraqi military collapsed in the face of an ISIS offensive that saw a third of the country fall into the hands of the extremists.

The premier is seeking a new term as he takes credit for the victory over ISIS and for blocking Iraqi Kurdistan’s controversial bid for independence last September.

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Iraq elections

Will Haider Al Abadi be re-elected?

military and diaspora begin casting their votes

Country readies for first polls since end of ISIS war

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The elections occur amid a mood of renewed optimism in Iraq, though they are unlikely to lead to fundamental changes. “There is definitely a sense that the country is embarking on a new chapter: post-sectarian, post-war, on an increasingly civilian footing and finally at peace with its neighbours,” Iraq expert and senior research fellow at the University of Singapore Fanar Haddad told The National.

Mr Al Abadi is facing two leading Shiite challengers to his Victory Alliance, which has pitched itself as an attempt to bridge Iraq's Shiite-Sunni divide.

Former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, a bitter foe despite coming from the same Dawa party, is widely reviled for stirring sectarianism and losing territory to ISIS, but draws support from a hardline base.

Former Transport Minister Hadi Al Ameri, who has close ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guards, is hailed by many as a war hero after leading paramilitary units that fought ISIS alongside the military.

That competition from within the majority Shiite community, alongside the multitude of smaller electoral blocs, makes it unlikely Mr Abadi will win an outright majority.

Despite the renewed optimism in Iraq, many Iraqis are weary of the same old faces appearing on the ballot and cynical of the prospects for change. "I don’t believe that my vote will make any difference," 34-year-old NGO worker Mahmood Zaki told The National. "I know that it is fake so why bother."

To counter widespread perceptions of vote fraud, a new vote counting mechanism haw been introduced. "This should combat election rigging,” the head of the Civil Democratic Alliance electoral coalition Ghassan Attia told The National.

Even so, unsophisticated voters may be easily swayed, he said. “Over 40 per cent of Iraqis are illiterate and nearly 37 per cent are under the poverty line, with hunger and ignorance you can easily manipulate and influence people by giving them false promises.”

Whoever emerges as premier will face the mammoth task of rebuilding a country left shattered by the battle against ISIS and the parallel challenge of restructuring Baghdad’s fragile relationship with the Kurds.

The Kurds make up approximately 15 per cent of Iraq's population and retain secessionist ambitions, despite last year's thwarted independence vote. Kurdish political parties remain in disarray but will likely win enough seats to be important coalition partners to whoever forms a government.

Thus the elections present a opportunity to renew a constructive relationship between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad, says Christine van den Toorn, director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani. “If the right leaders are in power or gain power that you can have a stronger more well governed Kurdistan under a stronger more well governed Iraq,” Ms van de Toorn told The National.

Despite the fighting against ISIS ending nearly a year ago, more than two and a half million people remain displaced and ISIS sleeper cells still pose a security threat that could impact Saturday's vote.

The overwhelming majority of displaced come from Iraq's Suni Arab population, leaving many feeling entirely disenfranchised. Many are unaware of the procedure for voting in displacement camps away from their home town as marked on their national ID cards.

This could contribute to a lower turn out on Saturday than the over 60 per cent rates seen in previous votes. "I don't anticipate that there will be a high number of people participating in the whole of Iraq," Tanya Gilly-Khailany, vice-president of Iraq’s Seed Foundation and a former member of the Baghdad parliament told The National. "That coupled with other security and economic issues means that elections this time will be especially challenging for women and minority groups."

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