Iraqis Vote in Local Poll Seen as Party Test of Strength

Iraqis cast ballots in provincial elections today that will test the strength of the main parties and gauge political trends before a parliamentary vote scheduled for next year.

More than 8,000 candidates are competing for provincial council seats numbering in excess of 400. Polling stations will open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and counting will start as soon as polls close. Initial results are due April 24 and final results in May, according to the Independent High Electoral Commission.

Members of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shiite State of Law Coalition and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s secular and Sunni-backed Iraqiya are taking part. The Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist Trend, both Shiite and both allied to Iran, are also vying for seats in the vote, the first since the U.S. withdrawal in December 2011.

“The political map for the next government will be built on the results of these elections,” Ibraheem al-Sumaidi, a Baghdad-based political analyst, said in an interview. “Iraqi political powers are now in a battle for survival. They aren’t sparing any efforts to win.” Maliki hasn’t ruled out seeking a third term in 2014.

Violence has increased in Iraq this year with insurgents carrying out attacks to foment sectarian divisions -- at least 27 people died and 73 were wounded when a suicide bomber exploded inside a Baghdad cafe April 18, according to police. Meanwhile, protests in five mostly Sunni regions against the Shia-led government have heightened tensions.

Campaign Posters

Electioneering efforts are visible in Baghdad’s Karrada area, a central district with a religiously mixed population of Shiite, Sunnis, and some Christians. Buildings and lamp posts along its 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) main road are plastered with campaign posters, some small, others billboard-sized. Most were those belonging to Maliki’s coalition and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.

Roads to and from polling stations will be closed, amid a heavy police presence.

The wide array of candidates and lists has left some voters in Karrada confused but not put off. They say they’re looking for councillors to make improvements to the capital, 10 years after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

“We want to change for the better,” said Mustafa al-Ibadi, 25, a graduate who sells jeans. “We need more public gardens and parks, good grids for sewage, water and electricity and paved roads, entertainment parks, and more security.”

Religious Parties

Voting is taking place in 12 of 18 provinces. It has been delayed in Anbar and Nineveh, two Sunni-majority provinces where authorities say security can’t be assured, and the disputed area of Kirkuk. Provinces that form the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in the north hold elections separately.

In addition to Baghdad, hotly contested seats are in the oil-rich province of Basra in the south and those near Kurdistan. At least 14 candidates have been killed in acts of violence across the country.

Religious parties won the most seats in the previous provincial elections in 2009, when voter turnout was about 51 percent -- lower than any previous poll since the invasion.

Thaier al-Mahdawi says neither apathy nor the fear of violence is a reason to stay at home this time.

“There must be someone good among these candidates who wants to make change,” the 54-year-old printing press worker said in Karrada. “He who doesn’t vote, doesn’t think about the future.”

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