On May 12, 2018 Iraq would be holding elections to its 329 member Parliament as well for its 18 provincial legislatures.

Originally scheduled for September 2017, they were delayed because of the ongoing fight against Islamic State. Even when Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced May 12 as the date, and his own candidacy, influential Sunni and Kurdish parliamentarians wanted a further postponement as to allow hundreds of thousands of war-displaced people to return home.

A Sunni Arab MP described holding the elections at this time as a "military coup against the political process". But the Supreme Court ruled that delaying the elections would be unconstitutional.

In the post Saddam Hussein era, traditionally the Kurds always get the post of Iraqi president, the Shiite Muslims always get the prime minister’s job and the Sunni Muslims get the Speaker of Parliament position. This was a system worked out by the US administrators, led by Paul Bremer, in order to avoid sectarian infighting among politicians.

But analysts and Iraqi politicians are beginning to see this “quota” system as a hurdle in the evolution of Iraqi democracy, with leaders being picked for their sect or ethnicity, rather than on merit. There has been an ongoing debate about altering the system.

The elections in Iraq are held according to the open list proportional representation system. Nearly 24.5 million of Iraq's around 37 million people are registered to vote spread out across 18 provinces. According to the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission voters can cast their ballots at 8,148 polling stations across the country.

Nearly 11 million biometric identity cards have been distributed to authenticate identities. The 285,564 internal refugees eligible to vote would do so in one of 166 polling stations in 70 camps spread across eight provinces in the country. Iraqis living abroad would be able to vote in 19 countries. The Commission had made preparations for electronic voting and Baghdad had awarded a Korean company Miru Systems a $135 million contract for the system, which included around 70,000 devices to be used across the country. According to reports there are nearly 7000 candidates in the fray for the 329 Parliamentary seats.

With women accounting for 57 percent of Iraq’s population interestingly there are ,600 female candidates vying for a quarter of Parliament’s seat as per the quota allotted for women. In Baghdad and other cities posters of women candidates are prominent depicting both veil-framed faces and candidates with make-up and without the hijab. Their campaigns have obviously not pleased everyone as they have been attacked on social media through sex videos showing certain female candidates in bed with men, as well as photos allegedly showing candidates posing in underwear or revealing outfits.

The women remain undaunted though a few have withdrawn from the race because of the smear campaign including Intidhar Ahmed Jassim, allied with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance party.

The last parliamentary elections were held in Iraq in 2014 and brought the ruling Shiite National Alliance to power in a coalition government with the Kurds and Sunnis. The current Prime Minister took over the premiership in 2014 from Nuri al-Maliki, a close ally of Iran widely criticised by Iraqi politicians for the army’s collapse as Islamic State militants swept through a third of Iraq.

After ruling as PM for eight years Maliki was barred from contesting for a third term by Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani paving the way for Abadi to take charge. Both belong to the Dawaa party but this time Maliki has announced his own candidature and refused to endorse Abadi. He has said that Dawa supporters will be free to choose between his alliance, called '‘State Of Law’', and Abadi’s '‘Victory Alliance.‘’

There has been a transformation in the political scene with the earlier voting according to sectarian lines clouded by the people’s disenchantment with the performance of successive governments. Voter apathy is being traced to their disgust with the same old faces with their vested interests again fighting for power.

Since the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam Iraq has been governed by the same political figures and parties and corruption and an absence of any improvement in the provision of basic services such as water, electricity and transportation have destroyed the people’s faith in the politicians. According to the Election Commission only 20 percent of the candidates are newcomers.

Media reports state that there are 87 party lists in the election. Some of the ones considered important are:

The Victory Coalition, led by outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi composed mainly of civil society personalities that cross sectarian lines.

The Conquest Alliance, led by Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr organisation and leader of the mostly Shiite Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary units. His candidates officially quit their military roles to run for office.

The Rule Of Law Alliance, led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. The list relies principally on the Dawa Party.

Marching Towards Reform, an alliance between Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr and communists. It includes mostly secular groups including the Iraqi Communist Party and Istiqama (Arabic for righteousness), a technocrat party backed by Sadr.

The Sunnis appear on several lists. The main list, "The National Alliance", is led by Shiite Vice President Iyad Allaqi -- who presents himself as secular -- and Sunni head of parliament Salim al-Joubouri. Weakened after three years of IS rule, Sunnis could be the biggest loser in this year's elections.

In terms of the frontrunners in the forthcoming race the names being mentioned are those of the present PM Haider al-Abadi, his overtly sectarian predecessor Nuri al-Maliki and Hadi al-Amiri, a military commander close to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards seen as a war hero by many because of the fight against Islamic State. Abadi has said his cross-sectarian block called '‘The Victory Alliance‘’ would contest the parliamentary elections, with candidates from other communities.

As the leader of the Dawa Party, Maliki would command a solid base of Shi’ite support in the election, especially from religious Shi’ites wary of power-sharing. He has been articulating an anti-Saudi Arabia line in effect criticizing Abadi for rebuilding bridges with Riyadh and other Sunni capitals.

Maliki has suggested replacing the system whereby the cabinet must reflect the parliamentary representation of political parties with a multi-ethnic governing majority and a multi-ethnic opposition minority. But non-Shi’ite politicians fear this could keep the main non-Shi’ite groups out of government and reduce their influence.

Maliki’s chances of again becoming Prime Minister are likely to be hampered by the recent pronouncement by Grand Ayatollah Sistani who, while exhorting people to vote, has also said that past electoral experiments were marked by failures, and that many of those who were elected or appointed to high positions in the government abused their power and took part in spreading corruption and squandering public money.

Sistani said he was keeping an “equal distance” from all candidates. Though he did not name anyone his comments were seen to be directed at Malilki since he mentioned the collapse of security forces in the face of Islamic State militants in 2014, when Maliki was in power. The incumbent Prime Minister Abadi , a rival to Maliki, was quick to welcome Sistani’s sermon, tweeting his “total support for Sistani’s instructions.

Hadi al Amiri’s hero credentials are marred by what many perceive to be his closeness to Iran. His candidates hang photos of Iranian Supreme Leaders Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in their offices suggestive of a stronger allegiance to Iran than Iraq. Some have commented that a vote for him would be a vote against Iraq’s sovereignity. Amiri’s Badr Organisation, an Iran-backed militia, is one of the many state-sponsored groups collectively known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) that emerged as a response to Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa calling on Iraqis to fight Islamic State.

But the most interesting move has been that of Muqtadda al Sadr. He has defied his clerical rivals and opted to campaign for the May 12 poll alongside Marxists who demand a secular state. His officials say that their alliance called “ Marching towards Reform” which is made up of six mostly non-Islamist groups, including the communists, and a Sadr-backed technocratic party called Istiqama (“Integrity”) is a first in Iraq and it is a revolution by Iraqis who want reforms — both secularists, like the communists, and by moderate Islamists.

Sadr has withdrawn his Ahrar bloc from parliament and urged its 33 MPs not to fight the elections in order to let the alliance field a joint list. Civil society activists lhad aunched the protest movement in July 2015, demanding reforms, better public services and an end to corruption and were later joined by followers of Sadr.

The one group that is likely to be decimated are the Kurds with reports suggestinig the Kurds’ loss of seats in Iraq’s parliament could reach double figures resulting from their loss of Kirkuk and the feud between the two main political parties in semi-autonomous Kurdistan.

The Kurds had held an independence referendum for the region held in September 2017 with over 92 per cent backing secession. Baghdad was incensed and had warned that any plebiscite would be “illegal”. Abadi had ordered federal troops to push Kurdish forces out of Kirkuk and its oilfields, along with other disputed areas in Nineveh and Salaheddin provinces in northern Iraq. Baghdad also imposed economic penalties.

Meanwhile posters in Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital and heartland of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), urging voters to turn out in force to defend the referendum in the parliament were matched by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) which had been calling on people to “vote for a strong future in favour of the right to self-determination”.

Adel Bakawan, Director General of the Kurdistan centre of sociology at Soran University near Erbil was reported to have commented that unlike in 2014 there would be no participation in the elections in the Kurdish territories outside the autonomous region, in the absence of protection from Kurdish security forces.

Even though Iraq has been able to cleanse Islamic State strongholds like Mosul, it would be facile to presume that the elections would be completely free of violence. In a significant demonstration of Islamic State’s continuing presence in Iraq, Islamic State militants recently restated their loyalty to the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in what is believed to be their first public pledge of allegiance to him since the “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq collapsed.

They posted a statement on IS social media groups stating “To infuriate and terrorise the infidels, we renew our pledge of loyalty to the commander of the faithful and the caliph of the Muslims, the mujahid sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Hussaini al-Qurashi may god preserve him,”. Islamic State has continued to carry out bombings and assassinations and the groups.

Who will win? Voter turnout would play a role as would the pronouncements of Ayatollah Sistani. Iran has an interest in ensuring that the Prime Ministership should go to someone who would preserve Iran’s interests like Hadi Amiri or Maliki or even someone from the conglomeration put together by Muqtada Sadr. Iran had last year reportedly engineered a move for the Badr Organisation, the Hezbollah Brigades, the Martyrs of Sayyid Brigades, AAH, Jund al-Imam and other pro-Iran groups to compete in the election under a unified banner.

Several Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi militia leaders had indicated their desire to run in the elections. But Ayatollah Sistani’s warning against foreign intervention in the election – whether financial or other means – or sectarianism might not work to Iran’s advantage.

The Saudi Arabian’s and the Americans would possibly like Abadi to win again since he has been making overtures to Arab states. Their concern about what Iran is up to was voiced by US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis who recently accused of "mucking around" in Iraq's parliamentary elections. He said the US had “worrisome evidence” that Iran was trying to manipulate the outcome of the Iraqi elections by disbursing large amounts of money to influence both candidates and voters.

Whoever wins would need to focus on ensuring that there is no revival of the Islamic State insurgency to previous levels though violence is unlikely to end. The new leader would also have to focus on rebuilding the economy and assuaging the people’s unhappiness with the non-provision of basic services. Iraq sought international support to the tune of US $ 88 billion at a funding conference in Kuwait in February 2018.

It was able to secure pledges of $30 billion, mostly in credit facilities and investment. Significantly the American’s made it clear that they did not plan to contribute any money for long term reconstruction projects. In January, the United States had said it planned to provide $150 million for stabilization operations in 2018 - funds that would go to restoring basic utilities and grants to small businesses - bringing Washington’s total contribution to $265.3 million since 2015.

Iraq is likely to remain a playing field for Iran versus Saudi and American interests. Money that should legitimately be spent on development would most likely go to the strengthening of proxies and continue to feed corruption. The future at least for the coming years is likely to remain bleak for the average Iraqi.