The first council elections in a decade are expected to strengthen the grip of pro-Iran groups.
Iraqis are headed to the polls to elect provincial councils for the first time in 10 years, with thousands vying for seats in the powerful assemblies.
Ballots will be cast in 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces on Monday. The elections are a prelude to a parliamentary vote in 2025, which will test the strength of pro-Iran groups that have been raising their profile in recent years.
Overall, 285 candidates will be elected to the councils, whose duties include appointing regional governors and allocating health, transport and education budgets. Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, which includes three provinces, will decide their provincial councils next year.
Turnout the ‘ultimate gage’
Monday’s vote is seen as a key test for the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who rose to power a year ago on the back of a parliamentary coalition of pro-Tehran parties.
Since taking office, al-Sudani has struggled to develop public services and infrastructure ravaged by decades of conflict. He is hoping for a high turnout, which would give his administration a boost.
“Turnout is the ultimate gage of satisfaction,” said Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow at Chatham House.
It will show, he said, “whether the Sudani government’s economic populism – the policy of giving out [public sector] jobs – can be successful and can capture the young population”.
Voting started at 7am (04:00 GMT) on Monday under tight security and was set to continue until 6pm (15:00 GMT).
Some 17 million of Iraq’s 43 million people are eligible to vote, with 6,000 candidates in the race.
However, voter apathy has been on the rise among a mostly young population who feel that they have not seen the benefits of Iraq’s massive oil wealth, much of which is misdirected or stolen in a country ranked among the world’s most corrupt.
Hassan Qabas, a member of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), told Al Jazeera that around 1,800 international observers had been invited to participate.
The vote is expected to consolidate the position of the ruling Coordination Framework coalition. The Iran-aligned bloc features Shia Islamist parties with factions of Hashed al-Shaabi, a network of former paramilitary units integrated into the regular army.
However, critics say the councils are sure to be nests of corruption and enable clientelism.
Influential Shia scholar and political kingmaker Muqtada al-Sadr, whose rivals blocked his bid to form a government after he emerged as a winner in the 2021 parliamentary polls, is boycotting the election.
Manaf Almusawi, a member of his Sadrist movement, told Al Jazeera the boycott is intended to “voice rejection of the government’s policies” and “deprive the government of legitimacy”.
Iraq’s provincial councils were established after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The councils were initially abolished in late 2019 as a concession to massive antigovernment protests, but al-Sudani’s government later re-established them.
To reflect Iraq’s multi-confessional and multiethnic population, 10 seats are reserved for minorities, namely Christians, Yazidis and Sabians. A 25 percent quota also ensures that 1,600 of the candidates are female.