Iraqis head to the polls on Saturday in the first parliamentary election since the country declared victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
Few foresee a dramatic government shake-up in the country’s sectarian divides but the balloting is expected to be a referendum on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s tenure and his pledge to be more inclusive of Iraq’s Sunni minority.
Corruption, security, poverty and the influence of Iran and the future of US forces currently in Iraq are other issues that have dominated the run-up to the election.
A total of 6,990 candidates from 87 parties are competing against one another, with nearly 2,011 female candidates who are guaranteed 25 percent, or 83, of the seats. Nine seats will be allocated to minorities.
The main lists can be divided into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish coalitions, with Shia parties being the most prominent due to their greater influence over Iraqi politics since 2005.
Candidates elected based on their position in the party will be elected to four-year terms in parliament.
Polls opened at 7am and will close at 6pm (04:00 to 15:00 GMT). The independent body overseeing the election is estimating a high turnout among Iraq’s 18.2 million elegibile voters, because it comes amid a relative lull in attacks by armed groups.
An electronic voting system is being used for the first time this year to try to reduce fraud and speed up the counting process.
Results will be released within 48 hours of Saturday’s poll close, according to the independent body overseeing the elections.
Security has been tightened across Iraq in the days before the election, after ISIL threatened to target polling stations.
Baghdad, Mosul and other major cities are imposing curfews on election day, and travel between provinces already has been restricted. As of Friday, airports and border crossings will be closed.
The 2018 vote will see two main Sunni coalitions, four Kurdish lists and five main Shia coalitions, from which the next prime minister of Iraq will be chosen. That candidate will, in turn, determine the fate of Iraq’s national unity.
Al-Abadi, heading the Nasr (Victory) Coalition, is seeking to retain his post but faces stiff competition from his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, heading the Dawlat al-Qanun (State of Law) Coalition, and the Fatah alliance of candidates, who have close ties to the powerful, mostly Shia paramilitary forces.
Fatah is headed by Hadi al-Amiri, a former minister of transport who became a senior commander of paramilitary fighters in the fight against the ISIL. Many of the candidates on his list were also paramilitary commanders before they cut their official ties with the force in order to seek office.
Influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also leads Sairoon Coalition, which is an alliance of the Sadrist Movement and the Iraqi Communist Party. His campaign has focused on fighting corruption and social issues.
Finally, the Hikma Coalition (Wisdom), created by Amar al-Hakim in July 2017, is running on a platform to attract a younger electorate from traditional Shia parties.
No one group is expected to able to win the 165 seats required for an outright majority. Instead, the bloc that wins the most seats will have to cobble together a majority by getting the support of smaller alliances.
The process of choosing the next prime minister is expected to take months and probably result in power being dispersed across different political parties with clashing interests. The current government is similarly fractured, making it almost impossible to pass legislation.
Until a new prime minister is chosen, al-Abadi will remain in office, retaining all his power.
Political power in Iraq is traditionally divided along sectarian lines among the offices of prime minister, president and parliament speaker.
Since the first elections following the 2003 US-led toppling of Saddam Hussein, the Shia majority has held the position of prime minister, while the Kurds have held the presidency and the Sunnis have held the post of parliament speaker.
The constitution sets a quota for female representation, stating that no less than one-fourth of parliament members must be women.
Once results of the election are ratified by Iraq’s supreme court, parliament is required to meet within 15 days.
Its eldest member will chair the first session, which will elect a speaker. Parliament then must elect a president by a two-thirds majority vote within 30 days of its first meeting.
The president then is charged with naming a member of the largest bloc in parliament – the prime minister-designate – to form a cabinet within 30 days. If that individual fails, the president must nominate a new person for the post of prime minister.
In the past, forming a government has taken up to eight months. In 2005, allegations of vote-rigging delayed the ratification of election results for weeks.