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Early results in Iraq show record low election turnout


The good news from Iraq's parliamentary election yesterday was that there was no major violence. The bad news - a lot of people didn't vote. Iraqis are tired of repeated elections for a system that's allowed corruption, poor public services and the growth of powerful militias. Looks like the usual parties, though, will hold on to power. But the vote is a window into where Iraq is right now.

NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us from Baghdad. Ruth, first off, how did the election go?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well, we visited polling stations in several parts of Baghdad. And although there was this heavy security presence, the atmosphere was calm. We saw many voters dressed in their best. And some brought their families with them - like Hashem Muthawi. He was with his little granddaughter, who was far too young to vote. But the polling staff had let her stick her finger in the ink, just like the adults, so she could feel like she was taking part. Muthawi told me he's voted in all the elections in Iraq, even in the earlier days, when it was dangerous and voters were sometimes threatened.

HASHEM MUTHAWI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He says, "the rights to elections is a victory for Iraq. During Saddam Hussein's regime, it was impossible for Iraqis to vote. So now it's important to exercise that right." But, A, a lot of Iraqis don't see it this way and instead just decided to stay home.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, so let's get into that for a second because the turnout was low. Why was it low?

SHERLOCK: Well, look, I'll just tell you a bit about it. Officials are saying that the turnout was 41% yesterday. That's the lowest ever. It was 44% in 2018. And this year, Iraq had tried to change its election law to make - in a way that was meant to inspire voters to come to the polls. But clearly it hasn't worked.

Even at the bigger polling stations this time, there were lots of empty voting rooms, with staff just sitting around. Some voters I spoke with said they'd come just to spoil their ballots in protest. And the reason for all this is because there's massive disappointment in the political system here. Iraq is this oil-rich country, and yet its public services, like hospitals, are failing. There's poor governance. And political parties siphon off state funds for their own political projects.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, it's too early to know the results. But what do we know about who is likely to do well?

SHERLOCK: Well, there are two major groups to watch. One is the movement of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is running on a nationalist agenda. And then there's the Shia bloc of political parties who are allied with Iran. The U.S. will be watching these especially closely, since they've been calling for the full withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq. These parties are the political representations of militias that fought ISIS, or Daesh, as people here call that group, when the Iraqi Army collapsed.

One supporter didn't want to give me his name because he fears dangerous repercussions if neighbors hear how he voted. But he tells us this. He refers to the political party's militia, the Hashd Shaabi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When the Daesh come to the - our country, only the al-Hashd Shaabi - he's come and stop them. If Daesh enter into Baghdad and the place, they kill all the body (ph).

SHERLOCK: So he's afraid that ISIS will return. And he wants the group in that will protect them against that. And more broadly, you know, he, just like all the Iraqis we spoke with, want to live in a country that's both safe and has functioning public services, where they can have a good life.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, just like anybody else. So once the votes are counted, what can we expect to happen next?

SHERLOCK: Well, look, if the past is any indication, no party's going to win a majority in the parliament. So there's going to be a lot of backroom wrangling and negotiations by the different factions that tend to represent different sects here, like the Kurds, the Shia, the Sunnis, over who should be prime minister. The U.S. and Iran usually get involve in these, too. And this could go on for weeks or for months.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Ruth Sherlock in Baghdad. Ruth, thanks a lot.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Ruth Sherlock
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.