IRBIL, IRAQ - Dressed for the occasion in flowing gowns and a traditional suit, Payman Salih, her husband and four of her daughters waited outside a polling station in Iraq for a final family member to cast their ballot.
For the first time since Islamic State militants were driven out last year of the cities, towns and villages inhabited by millions of people, citizens are voting for a new parliament — and ultimately a new government.
"We want freedom and a peaceful life away from militant groups," she said. "Hopefully the next government will be good. Because for the last four years they did nothing."
Many Kurdish voters, like Salih, do not support Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi after a political crisis last year led to Baghdad closing Kurdish airports and seizing land then held by the semi-autonomous region.
For many other Iraqis, Abadi is the face of victory over IS, and a favorite to once again be prime minister. Other leading contenders include former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and Hadi al-Amiri, one of the leaders of the Hashd Shaaby, the primarily-Shiite military force that supported Iraqi forces in the fight with IS.
Despite Abadi's popularity, it is too soon to say if he will be appointed prime minister, with months of negotiations expected before a government emerges.
Iraq's political parties traditionally fall almost precisely along ethnic and religious lines. But campaigns this year have demonstrated a shift toward cross-sectarian alliances, complicating the process.
Iraq's government is based on a quota system negotiated after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Positions are designated for sections of the population and the head of state is chosen from the majority, which is Shiite Muslim. Sunni Muslims and Kurdish politicians take other leading positions, with additional places held for women, Christians and other minorities.
Outside one polling station, Irbil Governor Nawzad Hadi said he hopes this new dynamic will help resolve divisions between Kurdish and Arab officials.
"We fought against IS," he said. "Now we want to start a new page with Baghdad."
Fraud and violence prevention
As voters cast their ballots, airports and roads were shut down for security purposes. Last month,elements of IS still operating in Iraq, despite their military loss, threatened to attack anyone "participating in the elections."
While the overwhelming number of polling places around the country remained safe, early in the day an attack was reported south of the oil city, Kirkuk, a bomb was discovered at a polling place in Baghdad, and other reports of attempted attacks surfaced.
A new voting system electronically scanned voting cards and sealed the ballot boxes to prevent fraud. "So far the devices are efficient and dependable," said Serdar Miranbagi, a spokesperson for the Independent High Election Committee in Irbil.
Election observers said the devices were unlikely to stop all attempts to corrupt the results, but they appeared to be working.
"There is a lot of political tension here," said Jalel Ibrahim, a retired military officer who has been observing Iraqi elections since 1991. "We need a strong system."
Voter participation was not strong, however. Reuters, quoting the electoral commission, reported turnout at 44.52 percent with 92 percent of
the votes counted. That reflected Iraq's widespread disillusionment with a series of governments that have faced deeply entrenched corruption, wars and economic crises for decades.
Even some voters that did turn up were skeptical that the results would positively affect their lives.
"We are tired of these wars but we don't know what will happen," said Sanger Abuzaid, Salih's husband. "We'll vote in new members of parliament. But we don't know what they will be able to do."