Iraqis go to the polls, but hope for positive change is low

Many Iraqis seem to have little faith that a new parliament will be able to tackle their country's economic challenges and bring stability.

Iraq holds its first parliamentary election since the defeat of ISIS insurgency

A man walks past a campaign poster on Friday in Kirkuk, Iraq. The country is holding a parliamentary election on Saturday. (Ako Rasheed/Reuters)

Iraq holds its first parliamentary election on Saturday since the defeat of the ISIS insurgency, which at its peak controlled one-third of the country.

But it seems few Iraqis believe they will get the stability and economic prosperity that have long been promised.

The oil-producing country has been struggling to find a formula for stability since a U.S.-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, and politics has brought only disappointment to most Iraqis.

The three main ethnic and religious groups — the majority Shia Arabs, the Sunni Arabs and Kurds — have been at odds for decades, and the sectarian divisions remain as deep as ever.

Iraqis seem to have little faith that a new parliament will be any more able to tackle their country's numerous challenges.

Much of the northern city of Mosul was reduced to rubble in fighting to oust ISIS, and it will require billions of dollars to rebuild. The economy is stagnant. Sectarian tensions, which erupted in 2006 and 2007, are still a major security threat. And Iraq's two main backers, Washington and Tehran, are at loggerheads.

"I will participate but I will mark an X on my ballot. There is no security, no jobs, no services. Candidates are just looking to line up their pockets, not to help people," said Jamal Mowasawi, a 61-year-old butcher.

Incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is considered by analysts to be marginally ahead, but victory is far from certain. Once seen as ineffective, he improved his standing with the victory against ISIS.

In this May 1 file photo, incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks during a campaign rally in Baghdad. (Hadi Mizban/Associated Press)

But he lacks charisma and has failed to improve the economy. He also cannot rely solely on votes from his community as the Shia voter base is unusually split this year.

Instead, he is looking to draw support from other groups. Even if al-Abadi's Victory Alliance list wins the most seats, he still has to navigate the long-winded and complicated backroom negotiations required to form a coalition government.

His two main challengers, also Shia, are his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki and Iranian-backed Shia militia commander Hadi al-Amiri.

Al-Amiri spent more than two decades fighting Saddam from exile in Iran. The 63-year-old leads the Badr Organization, which was the backbone of the volunteer forces that fought ISIS. He hopes to capitalize on his battlefield successes. Victory for al-Amiri would be a win for Iran, which is locked in proxy wars for influence across the Middle East.

'It's the same faces'

But many Iraqis are disillusioned with war heroes and politicians who have failed to restore state institutions and provide badly needed health and education services.

Critics say al-Maliki's sectarian policies created an atmosphere that enabled ISIS to gain sympathy among some Sunnis as it swept across Iraq in 2014. Al-Maliki was sidelined soon afterward, following eight years in office, but now feels ready to make a political comeback.

An employee of the Independent High Electoral Commission arranges ballot boxes in a polling station in Baghdad. (Karim Kadim/Associated Press)

In contrast to al-Abadi, with his cross-sectarian message, al-Maliki is again posing as Iraq's Shia champion, and is proposing to do away with the unofficial power-sharing model in which all the main parties have cabinet representatives.

Al-Maliki, who pushed for U.S. troop withdrawals, and al-Amiri, who speaks fluent Farsi and spent years in exile in Iran during the Saddam era, are both seen as much closer to Tehran than al-Abadi.

"It's the same faces and same programs. [Al-]Abadi is the best of the worst; at least under his rule we had the liberation [from ISIS]," said 50-year-old fishmonger Hazem al-Hassan.

After the fall of Saddam, Iraqis put decades of brutal repression and costly military adventures behind them. But the U.S. occupation was followed by an insurgency and an al-Qaeda campaign of bombings that triggered civil war. Then ISIS imposed a reign of terror across vast areas.

Ever since Saddam fell, ending decades of dominance by the Sunni minority, senior government positions have been unofficially split between Iraq's main groupings. The post of prime minister has been reserved for a Shia, the speaker is a Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd — all three chosen by parliament.

More than 7,000 candidates in 18 provinces, or governorates, are running this year for 329 parliamentary seats. The constitution sets a 90-day deadline for a government to be formed after the election results are formally announced, and the horse-trading can be protracted.

"There is no trust between the people and the governing class," said Hussein Fadel, a 42-year-old supermarket cashier. "All sides are terrible. I will not vote."