BAGHDAD: Turnout hit a record low for parliamentary elections in war-scarred Iraq, early figures showed on Monday amid widespread disillusionment about a political elite seen as inept and corrupt.
Sunday's vote was moved forward from 2022 as a concession to an anti-government protest movement that has demanded deep reforms in the oil-rich yet poverty-stricken country.
But in the end, voter participation hit a new low in Iraq's fifth election since the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein with the promise of bringing freedom and democracy.
Preliminary turnout was just 41 percent, the electoral commission said — below the modest 44.5 percent recorded in 2018. Official preliminary results had not yet been released and were expected later Monday.
UN Secretary General António Guterres hailed the "largely peaceful conduct" of the vote and urged "all stakeholders to show patience" as the electoral commission tabulates the results.
"There's general apathy. People just don't believe that elections matter," said Iraqi researcher Sajad Jiyad of the Century Foundation think-tank.
"The weak turnout is a warning. It is not only the legitimacy of the next prime minister that is in question, but also the legitimacy of the government, of the state — of the entire system."
Kerar Haider, who was busy removing campaign posters from the streets of the capital's Karrada district, said he did not vote "because it is useless." "The same faces always come back," the 26-year-old said.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi brought forward the vote to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against graft, unemployment and crumbling public services.
Iraq is a major oil producer but nearly a third of its almost 40 million people live in poverty, according to United Nations figures, and the Covid pandemic only deepened a long-running crisis.
The premier and national spy chief tweeted that he had "kept his promise and done his duty by organizing fair elections."
Kadhemi's own political future is now uncertain with few observers willing to predict who will emerge as leader after the usual political haggling between factions that follow Iraqi elections.
The election was held under tight security in a country where key parliamentary blocs have armed factions and Islamic State (IS) group jihadists have launched mass-casualty suicide attacks this year.