BEIRUT — After a week of violence, Iraq held its first provincial elections Saturday since the departure of U.S. troops last year.
Results are not expected for several days, but the conditions under which the vote was held showed that little has changed since the exit of the Americans, who shaped Iraq’s current electoral process after leading the 2003 invasion that ousted longtime President Saddam Hussein.
Saturday’s polling was held amid visible discontent among voters, with balloting delayed in several provinces and vehicular traffic again banned in big cities in an effort to avoid deadly attacks as in every Iraqi election since 2005.
Under lockdown, little violence occurred Saturday -- but more than 60 people died in the previous week as armed groups set off explosions around the country.
Polling stations in Baghdad were apparently sparsely attended in the morning. Loudspeakers in mosques began calling for the public to vote and leading Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s office issued a decree on Friday reminding people of their duty to cast ballots.
Since the first American-sponsored election eight years ago, enthusiasm has sagged among Iraqi voters as apathy and disgust toward the emerging political elite has mounted. National elections in 2010 left many feeling their vote didn’t matter after a mixed Sunni and Shiite Iraqiya voting bloc won the largest share of seats in parliament, but found itself blocked through legal and political machinations from leading the government-formation process.
“I came to put a cross over my paper in order not to be used by these political parties. I don’t think [any of] these politicians will do anything good for the people. We tested them for 10 years,” said Kareem Jaber, 37, a civil servant voting in Baghdad.
Others voted because they still felt they could make a difference, even as they expressed disdain for the nation’s leadership.
“I came to vote today, despite my frustration with the performance of the old group, in order not to allow yesteday’s thieves to steal our future,” said Selim Ahmed, a 30-year-old computer technician.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who has been roundly criticized for authoritarian tendencies in recent months, has sought to use the elections to promote his allies in advance of national elections scheduled for next year.
“This is the message which the elections carries, to reassure the citizen that Iraq is still OK,” Maliki told state media upon voting inside the heavily secured Rashid Hotel in central Baghdad. “Today’s election is the first after the departure of the foreign troops which is evidence of the efficiency, capability and firmness of the political process and the control and capability of the government to run these elections.”
Maliki made a unilateral decision to delay elections in the Sunni Arab provinces of Anbar and Nineveh, which have been the site of protests against his government. Both provinces are scheduled to hold their elections in mid-May. Kirkuk, home to Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Turkmens, has not held an election for a local government since 2005 amid ethnic and religious tensions.
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