Voters in Iraq are going to the polls in provincial elections on 20 April. Ten years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, they are faced with a chaotic and deeply divided political landscape.
To most Iraqis, ethnic or sectarian affiliation matters more than the political platforms, and violence continues to hold a deadly grip on politics.
How significant is the election?
This is the first poll since the withdrawal of US troops in December 2011, and is therefore a test of how capable the Iraqis are of running security during elections.
It is also seen as a test run ahead of parliamentary elections in 2014. The three main communities in Iraq - the Shia, the Sunnis and the Kurds - will keenly examine the election outcome to see if the majority Shia grip on power is weakening.
Are Iraqis excited?
Hardly. The election is taking place in an atmosphere of apathy prompted by widespread disappointment in the provincial councils elected in 2009. The perceived lack of qualified staff in public administration, coupled with corruption, has led many Iraqis to complain about the deteriorating state of public services such as health care, education and public utilities.
The limited powers wielded by provincial governors and councils are another reason why many are indifferent towards the outcome of the polls.
Who are the key players?
The biggest political parties are aligned along sectarian fault lines. Although the political landscape remains fluid, most of the candidates can roughly be divided into the following three categories:
- Shia, such as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition, the Islamic Supreme Council led by cleric Ammar al-Hakim and the Sadrist Movement led by radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr.
- Sunnis, such as the Islamic party, the Renewal List led by fugitive Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi, and the National Dialogue Front led by Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlaq.
- Kurds: The Brotherhood and Co-existence Alliance.
The important Iraqiya List is dominated by Sunnis, but represents itself as a secular movement and is led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia.
Unlike the previous elections, the main Iraqi Kurdish parties have decided to contest the elections on a single list, but the position of both Shia and Sunnis is undermined by internal divisions.
Saddam Hussein's Baath Party is banned in Iraq, and over 100 candidates have been disqualified over their alleged ties to it.
In total, there are over 8,000 candidates contesting almost 400 provincial seats and representing about 140 parties and coalitions. The huge choice leaves many voters confused and likely either to stay away from the polls or vote based on ethnic and sectarian affiliations.
What are the main issues?
Campaigning in Shia regions mainly revolves around concerns about possible reprisals by Sunnis, should they return to power. This will drive many to vote for Shia candidates out of fear rather than because of their political programme.
Iraq's minority Sunni population, which feels marginalised by the Shia-dominated government, has waged a months-long campaign of protests. The discontent is, however, unlikely to translate into more enthusiastic support for Sunni candidates. They are mostly seen to be riding the wave of protests to make political gains. Many of the Sunni demonstrators say they refuse to be represented by any of the parties taking part in the political process and will thus stay away from the polls.
At the heart of demands made by Kurdish candidates is the inclusion of adjacent Kurdish-dominated areas into the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.
Local issues such as better public services and more jobs also feature prominently in many candidates' manifestos.
Who is being elected?
The polls are held to elect provincial governors and members of local councils in 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces.
Three provinces which make up Iraqi Kurdistan will hold their provincial vote on a different date, while the multi-ethnic province of Kirkuk is not involved because it has no special law organising the polls there.
Kurdish candidates are contesting seats in two provinces with sizable Kurdish communities, Diyala and Salah al-Din.
On 19 March, the government controversially delayed provincial elections in Sunni-dominated al-Anbar and Nineveh provinces, citing security concerns. The move prompted accusations of trying to reduce the vote in the provinces which have seen massive anti-government protests by Sunnis.
Will insecurity affect the polls?
Yes. Even though security has improved dramatically over the past years, the spectre of violence still overshadows the political arena. Reports say more than a dozen candidates have been killed in the run-up to the poll, all of them reported to be Sunnis. On 15 April, just weeks before polling day, more than 30 people were killed in a spate of bomb attacks in Baghdad.
The fear of violence is yet another reason why many disillusioned Iraqis may choose to stay away from polling stations.
What are the key areas?
Participation in the elections is higher in the Shia-populated central and southern parts of Iraq, such as the crucial Basra province. Competition between different Shia groups is intense, and there is much interest in which of them comes out on top.
But competition is at its greatest in provinces populated by a mix of ethnic and religious groups, key among them Baghdad.