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Iraq Council of Representatives Election: Low Turnout Underlines Deep Frustration

While the world awaits vote tallies from the Iraqi High Election Commission (IHEC), low turnout and concerns about electronic voting hindered participation are dominating early analysis of the vote.

With turnout at just 44.5 percent, any new government - regardless of who is selected to lead it - will likely struggle to meet the non-sectarian, nationalist mandate that IRI and other observers witnessed emerging during the pre-election period. As IHEC announced the voter participation rate, some of those who boycotted the elections began celebrating the success of their campaign – a sentiment that was even echoed by some political actors in the days and weeks before the elections.

There is little doubt that a primary factor in the low voter turnout was apathy among the broad swath of Iraqis that are frustrated by politicians they perceive as corrupt and self-aggrandizing, which became a major campaign theme. Before candidate list announcements and throughout the campaign period, a dominant political narrative amongst opposition parties such as Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Sairoon (On the Move) and in the media was the need for ‘new faces’ in Iraqi politics to upend a culture of nepotism, corruption, and perceptions of fealty to Iran. Despite crystal clear public demand, as the candidate lists were announced, the names at the top of the principal contenders were all personalities Iraqis have known for many years.

Without diving into the complexities, Iraq uses a modified Sainte-Laguë method list system for its parliamentary elections, largely mirroring the processes of well-established parliamentary systems such as Germany, Sweden, Finland, and New Zealand among others. After the 2014 elections distributed seats to a number of small parties, the system was reweighted toward stronger, more consolidated parties in order to disadvantage smaller lists, biasing the election from an early stage toward more prominent actors. While voters need not understand the intricacies of the system, voters had a firm grasp on the opposition’s message: that the best rebuke to the old faces might be to not vote at all. Though electoral results are being revealed in short order, it will be many weeks before the full import of the boycott will be made clear.

Surprising preliminary results were announced late Sunday night: Prime Minister Abadi’s Victory List is currently winning only in Ninewa province, where the Mosul-native former Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi led the list. Sadr’s Sairoon list is well in the lead in Baghdad, which has the most seats in Iraq’s 329-seat Council of Representatives. Approximately 900,000 votes are still yet to be counted, including those cast by Iraqi expatriates and military personnel. These votes represent nearly eight percent of the total ballots cast, meaning that the winners of the election are not yet set in stone. Calls for quickly forming the new government, even as parties in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region clamor for recounts, are loud and clear. No one wants a repeat of 2014’s months-long government formation negotiations.

Making a political statement was not the only reason for low turnout on Saturday. With 2014’s numerous delays and concerns over the legitimacy of the vote weighing heavily on the Iraqi government, IHEC hastily deployed brand-new biometric voter registration and electronic voting machines during the lead up to the elections. While the efforts were well-intended, many Iraqis reported that the registration process was made even more difficult, including lengthy delays and challenges receiving the new registration cards. Registration and voter education campaigns for this cycle were launched quite late and were small in comparison to past pre-election efforts. Low levels of voter information were further exacerbated by continued high internal displacement, especially throughout northern Iraq.

Those displaced from their homes – whose numbers still sit above 2.1 million according to the IOM -  could vote using a conditional balloting process that allowed them to use any identification they had to prove their identity. Their information was verified electronically in Baghdad on Election Day, and if their information was found to be valid, they voted using the same ballots as those with biometric cards and then counted through a hybrid manual-electronic method. With the exception of voters displaced from their homes by the war with ISIS (largely Sunnis, Yazidis and Christian minorities from western Iraq), voters were meant to re-register with IHEC to update their information, submit fingerprints and receive new voter identification cards. It will be illuminating over the coming weeks to examine IDP votes and what impact the situation had on the election. 

As with previous elections, a specter of insecurity and violence loomed large on Saturday, this time largely driven by fears that ISIS cells would attack voters or polling stations. The government declared (spottily-enforced) curfews from midnight Friday to 7 PM Saturday in all governorates except Baghdad, where the curfew started at noon on Friday. Restrictions on movement included a 24-hour closure of all airports and land border crossings. While the curfews and movement restrictions appear to have had their intended effect on security, they also chilled turnout; both were lifted midday when it became evident that turnout was low. 

While issues with registration and voter turnout should not be discounted, Saturday’s election will likely end up being heralded as a success. Election campaigns were dominated by serious debates about corruption and government reform, and the campaign season was shaped around competing visions for Iraq’s future instead of solely around personalities. Election day itself was neither marred by violence nor have major credible accusations of electoral fraud yet come to light. Iraq’s new government, however it is ultimately composed, has a unique opportunity to commit to reform, rebuild public support, and provide broader opportunity for political engagement. Regardless of who leads Iraq, this is the government that defeated ISIS – no small feat given the state of the country just three years ago. The Iraqi government needs to prove that it can take the next step: socially and politically unite Iraqis to turn the page on the last decade of conflict and to define a future that provides the opportunity for all Iraqi citizens to succeed.