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Many Iraqi voters are disillusioned, and the low election turnout makes that clear


Initial results from parliamentary elections in Iraq show that a vote billed as an opportunity for political reform has done little to dislodge ruling sectarian parties from power. And turnout was the lowest it's been since the U.S. changed the political system after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports from Baghdad.



RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: As a newscaster reads out the election results on Iraqi television, one thing becomes clear - the existing political groups will still wield the most power.



SHERLOCK: The party of Muqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shia cleric, is far in the lead. Sadr battled the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003. But these days, he's seen by the West as a useful counterbalance to Iranian influence in Iraq.


SHERLOCK: These elections were held early in response to mass demonstrations, in which Iraqis called for an end to parties that squander the country's wealth through corruption and patronage. On polling day in Baghdad, some voters did see the election as an opportunity to bring change. This man asked not to be named because he fears repercussions should his views become known.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Because if I don't vote, this is not good to the - my country. I know the politics is not good to now, yani. But if I don't do that, this has become more bad, yani, to our country. Therefore, it's better I come to vote, yani.

SHERLOCK: But this is a minority opinion in Iraq. The election saw the lowest turnout ever, with only 41% of registered voters going to the polls.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Number one station.

SHERLOCK: On Sunday, at a polling station in Baghdad, we found listless staff in mostly empty voting rooms. One person we did meet there, Lubna Karim, says she voted for a new political candidate.

LUBNA KARIM: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He stands little hope of winning, but her vote sends a message that she, like so many Iraqis, no longer trust their political leaders.

KARIM: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Lubna says her daughter accompanied her, and she wanted to send the same message. She did so by spoiling her ballot. Millions more Iraqis simply stayed home. Now the winners of this parliamentary election will need to choose a prime minister and form a Cabinet. It's a process that could go on for months, but the resulting government will still have the smallest voting confidence yet from Iraq's people.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.