Campaigning for Iraq’s April 30 general election opened on Tuesday, with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki bidding for a third term as his government grapples with the country’s worst bloodshed in years.
Posters have gone up across Baghdad and around the country as candidates vie for one of 328 parliamentary seats.
No single party is expected to win an absolute majority and previous elections have seen lengthy periods of government formation.
Though not officially confirmed, the vote appears unlikely to take place throughout the western desert province of Anbar, which has been wracked by violence since the beginning of the year, with militants holding control of an entire town on Baghdad’s doorstep.
Iraqi voters have a laundry list of complaints, ranging from lengthy power cuts and poor running water and sewerage to rampant corruption and high levels of unemployment, to say nothing of near-daily attacks that have killed more than 2,200 people this year.
But elections in Iraq are rarely fought over political issues, with parties instead appealing to voters’ along sectarian, ethnic or tribal lines.
Among the posters already erected, for example, are those that depict tribes voicing their pride over one of their members running for parliament.
Maliki’s State of Law Alliance is widely seen as the front-runner to secure the largest single number of seats in the polls, Iraq’s first since March 2010.
But the bloc will encounter stiff competition in its traditional Shiite-dominated heartland of south Iraq from the Citizens list, a formerly powerful group seen as close to Iran, and the Ahrar party that was until recently linked to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
In the Sunni-majority west and north, a variety of Sunni blocs are expected to compete for votes including those led by Iraq’s parliament speaker and a deputy prime minister respectively.
And in the autonomous northern Kurdish region, a historic duopoly could be further dented by a relatively new political party that has made inroads in recent polls.
The elections come with violence in Iraq at its highest level since 2008, when the country was just emerging from a brutal sectarian war that left tens of thousands dead.
Analysts and diplomats have voiced fears that militants could try to further up the pace of attacks in a bid to derail the elections.
Sunni militants, who regard the Shiite-led government as illegitimate and allied with Iran, are often blamed for violence in Iraq.
The elections were briefly thrown into disarray by the mass resignation of the election commission, which blamed political and judicial interference, but the resignations were withdrawn within a week.