People weren't able to vote in parts of Iraq due to security concerns. However, in Baghdad's bustling Karrada district, polling stations were full. The turnout among women, in particular, was high.
The Iraqi capital became a pedestrian zone for an entire day - no cars allowed. Early Wednesday morning (30.04.2014), the city with six million inhabitants seemed like a ghost town, save for the occasional military or police vehicle. Even the airport closed for two days.
Toward noon, the streets of Karrada, a business and shopping district on the east bank of the Tigris, filled with life. Children played soccer on the empty streets and rode bikes, while their parents headed to the polling stations. Iraq has rounded out its first parliamentary election since the withdrawal of US troops in late 2011. What's at stake is the direction of the country where divisions remain raw and violent.
New home, same polling station
Amal Ibrahim (pictured above) came to Karrada from the area where she now lives in order to vote. The election authority's website listed the 44-year-old Iraqi's name under a polling station in Karrada. She had been registered in Karrada before she moved, and she still has to vote there. Many people in Baghdad have a similar story, having fled from one area to another during 2006 and 2007, when bloody conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites had reached a peak.
Originally, Amal lived with her husband and four children in Dura, where Shiites, Sunnis and Christians resided. The civil war caused many Shiites and Christians in Dura to move away. The reverse was true in other parts of the city.
Amal is excited as she enters the polling station in a school located on Karrada's Dahel shopping street. Although it's already the fourth parliamentary election since Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003, it's still a big event.
"In the beginning, many things were still improvised. We didn't trust the election authorities," she says. Meanwhile, though, the voting procedure has been perfected, she adds, and people aren't afraid of fraud.
Instead, representatives of many parties and alliances say the fraud takes place before and after the actual election. The fact that heavily Sunni Anbar province did not vote due to the bitter, months-long fighting there between government troops and the ISIS terror group means the result will already be somewhat skewed.
Imams get out the vote
By surface area, Anbar is the largest province in Iraq. Most of the country's estimated 20 percent Sunni population lives in its cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. Sunni groups expect it to play into Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's hands that Iraq's army, with its 1.5 million soldiers in total, has been unable to get the situation under control. They see ISIS as the henchmen laying the groundwork for the controversial leader's success.
After mid-day prayers conclude in the mosque, the polling station in Karrada gets noticeably fuller. Imams urged their followers to vote. In contrast to previous elections in which the highest-ranking Shiites kept from making political statements, religious leaders have made it clear this time that they want to see change. Without naming names, powerful Shiites have said that the current government has failed by not addressing poverty, unemployment and corruption - instead allowing these ills to multiply.
Votes for Maliki
Nonetheless, many voters in Karrada chose Maliki. Many are happy to offer their reasons why, including 56-year-old Hussein, who says Maliki is a strong man ready to combat acts of terrorism committed by ISIS.
Other voters cite his achievements in the past for their decision - his successful agreement on America's troop withdrawal, his support of Saddam Hussein's execution and the work he has done on behalf of the families of Shiites persecuted and murdered by the former dictator. They say the Shiite prime minister has seen to it that Shiites have an advantage in university placement and find their way into higher positions, while giving support to widows and children.
Maliki's State of Law alliance has campaigned under the slogan of change, but the prime minister has a completely different understanding of that term than do the parties with which he is competing. Maliki's aim is to move away from a partnership government in which Iraq's various religious and ethnic groups have proportional representation.
Amal's polling district has nine stations. The seriousness with which the election authorities, assistants and observers conduct their work in each of the nine is astonishing.
"I think we've arrived at democracy," says one member of the electoral commission, who stands at the entrance and directs voters to the rooms to which they should go.
Leila Alkhafayi is a teacher at the school where voting is taking place and is acting as an observer for the "yellow" alliance, which is led by Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim. His campaign promoted a modern image, including election posters featuring women without veils. That would have been unthinkable during the last election four years ago.
The most important challengers for Maliki's State of Law alliance are the al-Muwatin alliance and al-Ahrar, both dominated by religious Shiite parties. Others in the running include Mutahidoun, led by Sunni parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, and the al-Wataniya bloc.
Women, in particular, came out to vote during the first half of election day, Leila says. The election observer, who covers her hair with a scarf, says women have grown more self-confident in Iraq. Over 3,000 female candidates are running for one of the 328 seats in the next parliament - more than ever before.
Amal Ibrahim agrees, saying, "People in general have grown more confident here. Those who are voting know exactly for whom they're giving their vote. They're not just voting according to ethnic and religious criteria, like in the beginning."
Direct dialogue with citizens
After Saddam Hussein's removal from power, many Iraqis found their identities through religion or tribes. That trend is also beginning to fade, says Amal - although slowly. But she adds that a move toward political programs and concrete statements is unmistakable.
People are now asking politicians what they stand for, and that's a big step, Amal explains. Through her work with Iraq's Council of Ministers, she deals daily with members of the government. She says that it's becoming more difficult for those who want to govern without getting feedback and resistance from the people.
By the time the polling stations closed, 26 people had died. 39 of the 8,075 total polling stations could not be opened because of the difficult security situation. Prime Minister Maliki assured voters that he is confident of victory.