Low turnout marks Iraq's first provincial election in a decade

Low turnout marks Iraq's first provincial election in a decade
The election is crucial for shaping power dynamics, especially with the growing influence of Iran-aligned groups.
3 min read
18 December, 2023
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani votes in Baghdad. [Photo credit by IHEC website]

On Monday, 18 December, Iraq held its first provincial election in a decade, marred by low turnout amid political and public boycotts.

The last provincial elections held in Iraq was on 20 April 2013. The current vote is a test for the country's emerging democracy established post-Saddam Hussein's removal in 2003 by an illegal US and UK-led invasion. These elections are crucial in shaping power dynamics in the multi-nation country amidst growing influence from Iran-aligned groups.

 The ruling Shia Muslim alliance is anticipated to maintain power, while key rival Moqtada al-Sadr has boycotted the polls. The elected provincial councils are responsible for selecting the governor and the governorate's executive officials.

According to Iraq's High Independent Electoral Commission (IHEC), more than 25 million Iraqis have the right to vote in 14 provinces, excluding four provinces in the northern Kurdistan region. 

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The electoral commission declared a voter turnout of 17 per cent in Iraq's provincial council elections by noon on Monday. There will be no extension of voting hours, and the polls are slated to close at 6:00 pm as planned. The commission urged citizens to go to the elections to boost the participation rate.

According to video clips posted on the X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, people were urged to participate in the vote via mosque loudspeakers.  

During early voting for security forces and displaced persons (IDPs) on Saturday, concerns were raised regarding voting machines failing to register fingerprints and delays in sending final reports to the commission from specific voting centres. The IHEC has confirmed it resolved those problems.

Although Iraq's Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani has vowed to establish security during the polling process, some violent incidents occurred in front of some polling stations in the capital city of  Baghdad. According to video clips posted on the X platform, Iraqi security forces can be seen firing live ammunition in front of a polling station in Northern Baghdad.

According to other videos, clashes erupted between the Iraqi security forces and those who boycotted the vote in Wasit province, located in eastern Iraq.

The city of Kirkuk is currently in the spotlight as it conducts its first elections since 2005. Observers are closely monitoring the situation, particularly given the recent surge in tensions among various ethnic groups, such as Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen. These tensions have flared into violent incidents, intensifying concerns and emphasizing the significance of the ongoing elections in this crucial and historically charged region.

Iraqi Shia cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr on 13 November called on his supporters to boycott local elections; a move analysts expect will cause a low voter turnout.

 Sadr claimed that a boycott would weaken the legitimacy of internal and international elections.

Sadr announced he was exiting political life in conflict-scarred Iraq in August last year after a long summer of violent demonstrations and a sit-in by his supporters at the parliament building.

In Iraq's last provincial elections in 2013, Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's former prime minister, won the majority vote. 
On 28 October 2019, the Iraqi parliament voted to dissolve the provincial councils, a key demand of the 2019 anti-corruption protests.

In a departure from his usual practice, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, did not release a statement endorsing participation in Monday's election.