Boycotters shake up Iraq's election, which was marked by historically low turnout

BAGHDAD — Since Iraq began holding free and fair elections in 2005, voting trends were traditionally looked at through the prism of the nation’s dominant religious sects and ethnicities: Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish.

But the day after Saturday’s national election, the conversation on Iraq’s airwaves, social media and streets has revolved around an unexpected new constituency: boycotters.

Fewer than 45 percent of Iraq’s 22 million eligible voters turned out for the parliamentary election, held five months after the Islamic State militant group’s three-year occupation of major Iraqi cities was defeated in a costly and bloody war. The low turnout was at odds with predictions that voters would throng the polls in a harbinger of a new era in Iraqi politics.

The number reflects a steep decline in the rate of Iraqi voter participation, which was 62 percent in the 2014 and 2010 elections and hit a peak of 70 percent in 2005.

The official results of the Saturday vote are expected Monday.

Many of those who stayed home said it was an act of protest, not a lack of interest. They cited displeasure with Iraq’s complicated election system, which rewards name recognition over political platforms, and a lack of confidence that the same old faces that led the ballot lists would deliver on job opportunities and lasting security.

Others said they hoped their boycott would force a national reckoning over what they regard as a stagnation of Iraq’s political and social order in the years since dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

“I participated in all the previous elections, yet there was no change. We demonstrated against the electoral system, but no one listened,” said Mustafa Sadoon, a Baghdad-based writer. “I didn’t find any other choice to express my rejection except to boycott.”

[Iraqi election seen as a contest between Iran’s challenger and America’s incumbent]

Iraq’s government celebrated the election, however, citing the absence of any terrorist attacks at the polling stations and any reports of widespread irregularities or fraud.

Officials administering the elections attributed the low turnout partly to increased security measures and confusion stemming from the first-time use of an electronic voting system.

Several voters in the city of Najaf said in interviews that they were turned away when the biometric voting machines couldn’t recognize their fingerprint or for showing up with an old voter ID card.

Boycotters said none of those reasons could account for the sharp decline in participation — which many analysts and Western diplomats had expected to top 60 percent.

The campaign season was notable for politicians moving toward a centrist message of Iraqi nationalism over sect allegiances, a dramatic departure from the pervasive sectarianism that defined Iraq’s politics since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Even Iraq’s traditionally right-wing Shiite parties with close ties to Iran embraced the message of all Iraqis being equal under the law and putting national interests above that of any regional or global power.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s December declaration that the Islamic State had been defeated in Iraq had sparked delirious celebrations and pronouncements that Iraq was about to usher in a new era. His electoral ticket campaigned on that theme, hoping the military victory would translate into a political victory.

Waseem Seizeif, a blogger who advocated a large-scale boycott of the election, said the lofty rhetoric masked the absence of what much of the voting public was looking for: a substantive policy debate that addressed the myriad problems that Iraqis face.

“We believe in democracy, but we also believe that if we participated in the elections, it means we approve of this system, which we don’t,” he said.

Seizeif said the system forces desirable candidates to join party tickets headlined by established figures who rely on name recognition to garner votes — effectively eliminating any opportunity for others to run on a platform of reform.

That forces voters to cast ballots for a headliner politician they may despise as the only way to show support for a candidate they like.

“The whole system is broken,” Seizeif said. “Change won’t come through ballots. We should pressure them to change the entire system.”

[What Iraq’s election means for its Shiite militias]

Indeed, this election was dominated by established candidates, including a ticket headed by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was ousted after the 2014 Islamic State blitz of Iraq despite his coalition winning the most votes. Other leading candidates in this election included Abadi and Hadi al-Ameri, head of one of Iraq’s largest Shiite militias. A bloc backed by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who rose to prominence opposing U.S. forces from 2003 to 2011, is also expected to do well.

Sadoon said that he knew of several “clean” candidates he wished he could have voted for but that they had joined “corrupt blocs.”

“That means my vote will help the thief who is heading this bloc, and I can’t be party to this,” he said.

Ahead of the elections, even Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, signaled displeasure with the field of candidates, instructing followers not to support any hopeful who had already been tried and had failed.

In a departure from his stance during previous contests, when he urged all Iraqis to vote, Sistani also said that there was no religious obligation to participate.

As candidates awaited the official results, some reflected on the unenthusiastic turnout.

One prominent candidate from the ticket headed by Ameri, Karim al-Nouri, joked that more people participated in the rapid dismantling of election billboards for scrap metal than did in the election.

But he added a serious note, saying the low turnout was a warning to the political class.

“It’s an alarm,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “It’s a reaction to the corruption since 2003 and it means that the government must reconsider the political approach.”

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