Wael Makhsusi, a young man, blinked under the bright lights of a southern Iraq hotel ballroom.

The engineer in his 30s stood in Basra, holding a microphone. He was joined by other newbie candidates at Sunday’s parliamentary elections. They included hopefuls and independents who were drawn from protests two years ago that saw thousands of demonstrators angry at high unemployment, corruption in government and lack basic services such as electricity and water.

Makhsusi said that if elected, he would fight tirelessly for their rights. But a bespectacled man stood up and refused to believe it. The man said, “You have painted such a beautiful dream for us. But I am not convinced that I should vote for your.” The crowd burst into applause.

Last month’s scene highlighted the problems faced by the candidates. They are telling Iraqi youth, who make up the largest portion of the country’s population, to trust an electoral system that has been tampered with and rigged by fraud and tampering in the past. However, distrust and apathy are common and many of the same reform activists who protested in 2019 have called for a boycott of the polls following a series of targeted murders.

Noureddine Nassar, Basra candidate, acknowledged that the election will not be perfect, but he said that it would be better than the current system, even if it is only one-third better than those of the past.

Nassar and other activists are betting their hopes on a revised map of electoral districts, a concession to reformers. They argue that voting is the only way to achieve change.

Awatef Rasheed (an independent candidate in Basra) stated that “we have a new generation, born following 2001 who are eligible to vote now.” “I rely on this generation.”

Independents have a greater chance of winning because of the increased number of districts. Biometric cards will be used by 70% of registered voters, ending the problem of multiple voting in the 2018 election.

Only 44% of eligible voters turned out for the balloting — a record low after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that overtook Saddam Hussein as Iraqi leader.

Protesters did not demand that the electoral law be changed. Activists wanted more smaller districts. However, after 11 months of negotiations, lawmakers settled on 83 instead of 18. These lines were drawn in order to allow women to participate at 25% in 329 of the seats in parliament.

These smaller areas are also favorable to powerful local tribesmen and religious figures. The mainstream parties have already formed alliances with them.

The new law allowed parties formed during the protests to emerge. This included the Imtidad Movement. It is expected to prosper in Nasiriyah in southern Pakistan, which was a flashpoint of the demonstrations. Makhsusi is one of the candidates. He says he wants a crackdown on the established political establishment.

It also supported more well-funded, experienced mainstream grassroots parties like the Sadrist Movement led by populist cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. This party won the most seats in 2018. Its members are already anticipating a positive outcome.

Mohammed al-Tamimi (a Sadrist official who is also the deputy governor in Basra) stated that “The Sadrist Movement” will win a lot of votes because it has our people throughout Basra.

They assume that Wissam Adnan will not vote. He is also the founder of Jobs in Basera, a social networking platform that aims to assist the city’s unemployed.

Adnan stated that none of the current leaders had made any significant changes for the people. This is a common opinion in Basra despite its oil wealth. Basra is plagued with poverty, joblessness, and a crumbling infrastructure that supplies filthy water and frequent power outages.

Randa Slim of the Washington-based Middle East Institute stated that “Given the lack of credible alternatives and overwhelming belief among Iraqis that there is no system for internal reforms,” the option of not voting could be the only way for a voter express their disapproval of the status quo.

In October 2019, over 600 people were killed in mass protests. They are also known as the Tishreen revolution in Arabic for the month that they took place. The crowds were dispersed by security forces using live ammunition and teargas.

After a few months, protests stopped due to the brutal crackdown and the outbreak of coronavirus. However, 35 people were killed in assassinations targeting protest organizers, activists and independent candidates. This created a fear-based atmosphere and intimidation. According to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission, another 82 people were injured in attempted murders. Many suspect that these killings were committed by militia groups.

After the murder of Ehab al-Wazni, a prominent activist in Karbala, calls for an election boycott rang loud. Voices have been raised calling for serious efforts to bring weapons under the control the state, which is a difficult task in a country that is awash in militias and guns.

Iran-backed hard-line Shiite militias are among those seeking to consolidate political power through the election.

The United Nations is stepping up a rare monitoring mission to boost turnout. Iraq’s electoral commission works to correct systemic flaws that elites have exploited. Some parties resort to the old-fashioned tactic of buying votes with favors, jobs, and cash.

Ali Hussein is a young religious scholar who ran as an independent candidate. He admitted that he did not know how to get people voting for him.

“I was shocked at the number of people who asked for electricity and roads. He said that some candidates were giving out food to get votes or taking people’s personal information. It’s caused confusion over what our duties should be, and we don’t know how to communicate with the people.”

Sadr City’s Baghdad suburb promised women new abayas, loose robes worn by many Iraqis, in exchange for their vote for a particular candidate. A party helps residents in Basra’s Zubair neighbourhood with bureaucratic paperwork. Others claimed that militias offered protection to their communities if they voted in their favor.

Many people have little faith in U.N. poll monitors, as such tactics are often discovered long before the election day.

The U.N. provided technical assistance to Iraq’s electoral committee for months to close loopholes that were being exploited in the past by parties. Three U.N. officials stated that a crucial condition was that the ballots were not moved in advance of an initial count at each polling station. This would eliminate any chance of manipulation.

At the Basra rally, there was a dark mood as Ali Hussein al-Eidani, the candidate, told them that his son had been murdered during the protests.

The elderly man asked, his eyes welling up with tears.

Ahmed Yaseri, an activist, was the moderator and returned the discussion to increasing voter turnout.

“We want to see what the future holds.” He said, “We don’t want any more blood.”