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Iraq Holds First Provincial Elections in a Decade

In News, World
December 18, 2023

Iraqis were casting ballots on Monday in the first elections for provincial councils in a decade, with the ruling Shi’ite Muslim alliance likely to extend its grip on power amid a boycott by populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, its main political rival.

The election sets the stage for parliamentary elections scheduled for 2025, which will determine the balance of power in a nation where groups with close ties to Iran have gained ground in politics and the economy in recent years. The vote is also seen as a test of Iraq’s young democracy, installed by the U.S. after toppling dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Voter apathy has been on the rise among a mostly young population who feel that they have not seen the benefits of Iraq’s massive oil wealth, much of which is misdirected or stolen in a country ranked among the world’s most corrupt. Senior politicians called for a high turnout in statements made to the media after they cast their votes at a special center set up for top officials in a plush hall at one of Baghdad’s finest hotels.

Just over 16 million Iraqis registered to vote on Monday, but that was fewer than in 2021’s parliamentary polls, when authorities said 22 million were eligible. Turnout then was 41% of eligible voters. Local elections last took place in 2013. They were postponed due to the war against Islamic State militants who took over large parts of Iraq but were eventually defeated.

Sadr’s Shi’ite rivals, who blocked his bid to form a government after he emerged as a winner in 2021 parliamentary polls, are likely to take control of most local councils, especially in the mainly Shi’ite southern provinces. This would further consolidate the power of the ruling Shi’ite alliance which is close to Iran, known as the Coordination Framework, deepening their power via access to state oil wealth that can be spent on local projects and services.

The alliance already form the single-largest bloc in parliament after members of Sadr’s party withdrew. Sadr, a populist who has positioned himself as a staunch opponent of both Iran and the United States, has said the elections would reinforce the dominance of a corrupt political class.

Voting takes place in 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces to select 285 council-members whose duties include appointing powerful provincial governors and overseeing local administration. Elections in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, which includes three provinces, are expected to take place next year.

Members of the Shi’ite alliance are running on several lists, with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki forming his own list and Iran-backed groups with armed wings running another, but have said they will rule together after the vote. The two most powerful Sunni Muslim leaders in the country, ousted parliament speaker Mohammed Halbousi and business mogul Khamees Khanjar, are running together.