At a cafe in the Iraqi capital, 19-year-old Hamad shows pictures of his time protesting in 2019, in what some called the country’s “biggest social movement in modern history.”
Protesters across the country demanded the fall of a government they saw as corrupt and ineffectual. Hundreds were killed, injured or kidnapped in the violence that ensued.
The government made one notable concession, holding these early elections.
But many Iraqi activists, like Hamad, say the parliamentary elections are as corrupt as the government they want to replace.
“If I participate, I think that my conscious will haunt me 100% for such an ugly crime upon millions of Iraqis,” Hamad told VOA.
WATCH: Iraq elections
Outside the polls Sunday morning, however, voters’ opinions were as varied as the country itself, home to multiple ethnicities, religions and sects.
“If 10% of the real independent representatives win, future elections will be in a real state without armed groups outside the control of the government,” said voter Sa’ad Ali. “That’s what we hope.”
Other locals are quick to explain why they are not even registered to vote, saying in 18 years of so-called democracy since Saddam Hussein fell, Iraqis are still without basic services and government support. Initial turnout was 41%, according to the Independent High Electoral Commission.
“I won’t even talk about the killings or lack of security,” said Zainab, a Baghdad resident. “But the utilities. When the temperature is 50 degrees Celsius the electricity comes for an hour, or half an hour only.”
This election is widely expected to result in a victory for supporters of Iraqi Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shiite leader that currently stands against foreign interventions by Iran and the United States.
Early results are expected Monday, but in Iraq’s complicated sectarian system, it may take weeks or months for the new parliamentary body to appoint a prime minister and form a government, regardless of which parties win large amounts of new seats.
“We need a strong prime minister that is supported by the parliament and the people,” said Issam Hussein, Sadr Movement spokesperson. “The conflicts in Iraq are harsh. There are sectarian and racial elements and disrespectful statements that lead to social divides.”
But politicians from newer parties say it is the established large parties like Sadr’s that propagate sectarian divides and fuel the seemingly impenetrable cycle of corruption.
“Our main goal is to revive the national identity because lots of Iraqis have lost it and their loyalty is to their sects,” said Mushriq al-Freaji of Taking My Rights Movement. “One of the basic needs is a reconciliation between the people and the parliament.”
Updated elections laws have made room for more new independent parties to run for office, but, al-Freaji said, if the elections do not produce some kind of hope for change in the country, still reeling from decades of war and economic devastation, tensions that exploded into mass street protests in 2019 will easily rise again.
More than 167 parties and more than 3,200 candidates ran to fill 329 seats in the parliament, according to Reuters.