BAGHDAD — For the first time since driving out ISIS, Iraqis go to the polls on Saturday in an election that will shape attempts to heal the country’s deep divisions and could shift the regional balance of power.
Iraq’s three main ethnic and religious groups, the majority Shi’a Arabs and the minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds, have been at loggerheads for decades and the sectarian rifts are as apparent as ever 15 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The election of a new prime minister and parliament also takes place the same week President Trump announced he was pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, raising tensions between Iraq’s two main allies: Tehran and Washington.
Whoever wins the May 12 election will face the challenge of rebuilding Iraq after four years of war with ISIS, jump-starting a flagging economy, balancing the interests of powerful foreign patrons and maintaining the country’s fragile unity in the face of sectarian and separatist tensions.
“We want security. We have killings, theft, kidnappings. We never had this before. In the past 15 years the people have been destroyed,” said 29-year-old Khalid Radi, a laborer in Baghdad.
Incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is considered by analysts to be marginally ahead, but victory is far from certain.
Even though he announced ISIS’ defeat during his first four-year term, diffused sectarian tensions enflamed by his predecessor and maintained Iraq’s unity in the face of a Kurdish independence bid, he faces a tough battle.
Ever since Saddam fell in 2003, ending decades of dominance by the Sunni minority, senior government positions have been unofficially split between the country’s main groups.
The post of prime minister has been reserved for a Shi’a, the speaker for a Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd – with all three being chosen by parliament.
More than 7,000 candidates in 18 provinces, or governorates, are running this year for 329 parliamentary seats.
The Iraqi constitution sets a 90-day deadline for forming a government after the election results are formally announced and the horse-trading can be protracted.
The new government will also have to cope with the simmering tension between the United States and Iran.
As prime minister, Abadi has won praise for his deft juggling of the competing and colliding interests of his two main backers. While his government maintains good relations with Iran, he is seen as balanced and Western diplomats say he would be the easiest candidate to work with.
Maliki, who pushed for U.S. troop withdrawals, and Amiri, who speaks fluent Farsi and spent years in exile in Iran during the Saddam Hussein era, are both seen as much closer to Tehran.
Divisions all around
The election is also taking place in an atmosphere of division and disillusionment within Iraq’s three main groups.
The Shi’a vote is split as many are unhappy with their leaders after 15 years in power that have only yielded violence and unemployment and left the country’s infrastructure crumbling.
But if the Shi’as are split because they have too many leaders, Sunni Arabs are divided because they have none.
Sunnis are at their lowest point yet. Millions languish in displacement camps; many are out of pocket and trying to rebuild destroyed homes in cities reduced to rubble – and they feel collectively branded as ISIS sympathizers.
The Sunni politicians that have held positions in government are largely discredited and there is no national Sunni leadership or party structure.
Iraq’s Kurds, meanwhile, blame their leaders for gambling away hard-won autonomy in the failed independence referendum and might punish them by voting for non-traditional parties, which in turn could undermine the historically unified Kurdish bloc’s position as kingmakers in parliament.
Voters go to the polls on Saturday, though security forces and Iraqis abroad started voting on Thursday. The electoral commission has said results will come “hours” after polls close.
ISIS has threatened to attack polling stations amid a recent uptick in security incidents in areas retaken from the militants, while many voters simply do not feel the election will bring any change.
“I propose the state just cancel parliament. Shake it and uproot it,” said 27-year-old mechanic Mustafa Tabbar using a popular Iraqi phrase meaning radical change.
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