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World

Why So Many Iraqis Are Discouraged By Their Country's Upcoming Election

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On Saturday, Iraq will hold its fourth parliamentary election since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Iraqis have paid a heavy price for the freedom to elect their leaders. Now, though, many are so disillusioned with their previous governments that they say they won't vote this time around. NPR's Jane Arraf reports from Baghdad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: To get to the Friday book market in Baghdad, you pass by streets filled with Iraqis selling their stuff on the sidewalk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: There are used clothes, kitchen odds and ends, worn plush toys each for less than 25 cents. One of the vendors is Muwafaq Raheem, a former traffic cop. He quit 10 years ago when police were being killed during Iraq's civil war. He's been trying to get a job or a pension ever since. He has no plans to vote.

MUWAFAQ RAHEEM: (Through interpreter) I voted last time but never again - never. They're the same faces, and what did we get from them?

ARRAF: There are a few reasons why this election could be genuinely different. ISIS is mostly gone, and security has improved immensely. Voters have a much bigger choice of candidates, and the country is generally less sectarian than it was during the worst of the violence here. But past governments and a history of mismanagement and rampant corruption have left their mark.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE MUSIC)

ARRAF: A few blocks away, al-Mutanabbi Street is the traditional beating heart of Baghdad cultural life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE MUSIC)

ARRAF: Young men sell wooden flutes. Stacks of old and new books in English and Arabic spill out on the sidewalk.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLIN MUSIC)

ARRAF: In Qushla square just down the street, Iraqis crowd around wooden gazebos, listening to lectures on political thought or music and poetry.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLIN MUSIC)

ARRAF: This is where you normally find Iraqis who are politically engaged and young people believe their actions can make a difference. But ahead of this election, they're hard to find. Yassar Jabar is 29. He's voted in the last three elections, but he doesn't plan to vote in this one. He's upset because five years after graduating, he doesn't have a job.

YASSAR JABAR: (Through interpreter) Honestly, we've seen nothing good from the candidates I voted for. So this time, I decided to vote for no one.

ARRAF: Shalan Zeidan has been selling books on the street for 20 years. He's particularly distraught. I ask him why he's not going to vote.

SHALAN ZEIDAN: Why? There is no result - no result. We feel hopeless - no government, real government. There is a tribe. A tribe control us. We have a tribe. And we have gun. Big fish eat small fish, and the big fish always win.

ARRAF: To be fair, a lot of Iraqis in past elections said they wouldn't vote, and then they changed their minds. In elections four years ago, turnout was about 60 percent. Millions of Iraqis will vote, but for many, their faith in democracy has been shaken. Ranya Nashat is one of those. She was a French horn player in Iraq's National Symphony Orchestra. There is no orchestra now. The Culture Ministry didn't renew contracts this year.

RANYA NASHAT: You can see, like, everything is so wrong. That's why I'm not going to elect because it's the same faces every four year. Neither my mom or my brother or my uncle or my other uncle or my aunt and friends - a lot of my friends are not going to elect this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: With the fall of Saddam in a country rich with oil, Iraqis expected a lot from their new democracy. Young Iraqis in particular say they've been bitterly disappointed. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MESSAGE TO BEARS' "PRETEND TO FORGET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.