Iraqis head to the ballot box on May 12 to elect a new national parliament. It will be the fourth such election since the United States-led invasion of the country back in 2003.

That controversial intervention and occupation removed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, yet also plunged Iraq into years of bitter sectarian and ethnic conflict.

Now, though, hopes are high that this election may be a turning point, with Iraqis rejecting such divisions and voting for parties that are anxious to shed their previous narrow religious or ethnic nationalist identities.

“Iraq is the victim of extremist religious sectarianism and extremist nationalism,” Kamal Chomani, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told Asia Times.

“These two extremisms have failed Iraq since its foundation. Now, some political parties, influenced by a new generation, are looking for something different.”

Yet, how far that desire for a different approach will go remains to be seen, with many of the country’s traditional, Sunni, Shia or ethnic Kurdish-based parties still holding many of the keys to power.

Facts and Figures

Today, Iraq’s 18.2 million eligible voters will choose the occupants of 329 seats in the national parliament, known as the Council of Representatives.

A quarter of the seats are reserved for women, while nine are reserved for the country’s non-Muslim religious minorities.

This time, there are 6,990 candidates standing – 2,011 of them women – with some 87 different political parties in the running.

Iraq Elections Graphic 2018

This may seem a lot, but in previous elections, even larger numbers of parties have stood, with the first post-2003 ballot, held at the end of 2005, seeing 228 parties field candidates, while 276 registered in the last elections, held in 2014.

Many of these parties were – and still are – built around individuals, while the common practice has been for handfuls of these to form coalitions.

Party Lists

Despite this apparent diversity, too, three main groupings have traditionally dominated the political landscape: the Shia and Sunni lists – based on the two main religious groupings within the country – and the Kurdish list, representing Iraq’s ethnic Kurds, who mainly live in the north.

They have a political tradition and history different from the ethnic Arab Shias and Sunnis further south.

Within the Shia list, there are five main coalitions running this time, with the Nasr (Victory) Coalition, led by sitting-Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, widely tipped to emerge the largest single grouping in parliament.

The ‘Victory’ referred to is that over ISIL, with al-Abadi trying to capitalise in the hustings on his leadership during that recent conflict.

Nasr has also reached across the sectarian divide this time, and attracted some Sunni leaders, such as the cleric Abdul Latif Humeim.

Other Shia lists include that of former-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and his State of Law Coalition; the Fatah and Hikma coalitions, and the al-Sairoon Coalition.

The last of these is led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a major Shia religious leader. Yet, as an example of how the elections are different this time, al-Sadr has allied his movement with the Iraqi Communist Party.

Iraq Elections 2018 2

Several other small non-sectarian and Sunni groups have also joined with al-Sadr to campaign on an anti-corruption, anti-sectarian ticket.

The Sunni list, meanwhile, has split into two main coalitions – al-Qarar al-Iraqi and Wataniya – with efforts to field a united list failing to bear fruit. The first coalition bases its support in and around Mosul, retaken from ISIL last year after a lengthy siege, while the second emphasises a “civic” – or non-sectarian – agenda.

In the Kurdish political world, two main parties have long dominated – the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The latter has, however, recently split, giving rise to a number of other groupings, such as the Goran (Change) party, the Democracy and Justice Party and the Kurdistan Islamic Group.

Both the KDP and PUK supported last years’ referendum attempt by the Kurdish region in the north of the country to break away from Iraq and establish an independent Kurdistan.

The failure of this effort – which led to the re-occupation of some Kurdish-held territory by forces loyal to the Iraqi government in Baghdad – has likely impacted both parties badly.

Movements such as Goran have since called for Kurds to adopt a different attitude towards Iraq and the government in Baghdad.

They argue that in order to secure the Kurdish region’s future prosperity, Kurds should work with the other Iraqi parties, rather than try and break away from them.

Voting in the Ruins

Thus, this time around, Iraq’s political parties have been making an unprecedented shift away from the ethnic nationalism and religious sectarianism that have previously dominated.

“Since 2003, all the political parties have failed,” continues Chomani. “Kurdish nationalism, Shia sectarianism, Sunni sectarianism and Sunni extremism, they’ve all failed. Now, the political parties have to go beyond the old sectarian or ideological lines.”

Now, too, large areas of the country lie devastated by years of war and displacement.

After the defeat of ISIL last year, the government said that about US$100 billion of investment would be needed to rebuild the country’s ruined infrastructure. At the same time, Iraq’s parliamentary transparency commission estimates that because of corruption, some $320 billion has gone missing from this oil-rich country since 2003.

Meanwhile, estimates of the numbers killed since then vary wildly, from around 100,000 to half a million – but in either case, they have been mostly civilians and have left thousands of lives, families and communities shattered.

Many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have also fled the country, or been uprooted from traditional homes to become internally displaced.

Now, while few expect a major political landslide to occur as a result of today’s elections – given the power of the established parties – the vote may see some important gains by those wishing to see a new approach to politics.

Any change that does come, however, will have been at a terribly high price.