Iraqis are braving a wave of bombings and violence today to vote in their first national elections since US forces withdrew from the country in 2011.
Over 9,000 candidates, representing 276 political entities, are running for 328 parliamentary seats. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is standing for a third four-year term in office, is widely expected to net most votes with his State of Law alliance. However, analysts say he is unlikely to reach an overall majority and may have to form a coalition to hold on to his position.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops and police have deployed around polling centers. Authorities also took a number of special security measures to reduce the possibility of further carnage after the weeks before the election were marked by scores of deaths. The entire week was declared a holiday to help keep streets clear, traffic has been banned in Baghdad from Tuesday to Thursday, and the country’s airspace was closed.
Despite these efforts, two women were killed when a roadside bomb exploded in a town near Kirkuk and another explosion in Dibis wounded five soldiers, an officer told AP.
Video footage shows voters going to the polls in the autonomous Kurdistan region and throughout the country.
Partial voting figures will be announced from next week, although it will take several more weeks before the final election results are confirmed. Al-Maliki may be favorite to win, but it will not be easy for him to form a coalition. Many of his former allies have criticized him for his his policies, including the crackdown on protests by the country’s minority Sunni population against his Shiite-led government.
In response to these measures, militants took over Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in the predominately Sunni region of Anbar in January and, despite fierce fighting, security forces have been unable to take them back. Voting has not taken place in large parts of Anbar as a result.
Corruption has also been an increasing complaint. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2013 ranked Iraq as the 171st most corrupt country out of 175 and it scored 16 out of 100 (where zero is highly corrupt and 100 is corruption free), down from 2012’s already woeful 18.
Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow with Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program, told VICE News that the elections were for the most part successful, but cautions that the negotiation period after the polls close will be just as important. "This will be a crucial test for the security services... Because regardless of who wins or loses it will be the first change of government since the US left and everyone is crossing their fingers that the transition will be smooth and also peaceful."
Maliki will almost certainly win, al-Khoei predicts, but it isn't yet clear whether he will be able to maintain his position. "I’ve spoken to many Iraqis, his supporters, his critics, his allies, his rivals, and they all expect Maliki to win a plurality. The question will be how large his margin is... If he wins more than 90, I think he will have a mandate to stay, though nothing is certain. Less than that and he will have an either harder time staying in power... His Shiite rivals are against him and don’t want him to stay for a third term. The Kurdish position is that they very much don’t want him to stay and the Sunnis, particularly since the US left, feel they have been marginalized and deliberately targeted by the Shiite-dominated security forces. He’s going to have a hard time."
Negotiations to form the next government will likely last at least two or three months, al-Khoei said, and could drag on as long — or longer — than the nine months of discussions which followed polls in 2010. He adds, however, that sooner would most definitely be better. "There could possibly be a new world record broken as to how long it takes to form a government, which is awful news, as until a government is formed, I can’t see the security situation getting any better and I can definitely see it getting worse."
The run-up to the elections was also particularly bloody. On Friday, a series of explosions killed 33 at an eastern Baghdad stadium where a Shiite militant group was holding an election rally.
Another 10 people died Sunday in an explosion at an outdoor market in Sadr City, one of Baghdad’s Shiite districts. More than 50 people were killed Monday, including 30 in a blast at a Kurdish rally where supporters of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had gathered to watch television footage of him casting his ballot. Talabani was voting in Germany, where he is receiving medical attention.
At least 21 people were also killed throughout Monday in a series of suicide attacks aimed at members of the country's security forces as they voted two days before the rest of the electorate, so they could focus on protecting polling stations today. The Islamic state of Iraq and Syria — a militant group so extreme they were disowned by al Qaeda — claimed responsibility for the stadium attack, as well as the Kurdish rally blast.
Tuesday saw another 24 deaths. The largest loss of life happened when explosions ripped through a marketplace in Sadiyah.
According to UN figures, 8,868 people were killed in Iraq in 2013, the highest figure since fierce sectarian fighting five years ago. Around 2,000 have died already in the first quarter of this year.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck