Baghdad, Iraq – With violence targeting civilians on the rise and the government battling rebels just 65kms from the capital, Iraqis will vote in parliamentary elections on Wednesday and, lacking any obvious challenger, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is expected to stay in power.
The first elections since US troops pulled out in December 2011, the poll represents a huge challenge for under-equipped and often demoralised security forces, with a resurgent hardline rebel group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), threatening to disrupt voting with widespread attacks.
The group, which grew from the ashes of a now disbanded al-Qaeda affiliate, has already made good on that promise, launching a spectacular triple suicide attack on an election rally last week, killing 37 people, injuring more than 80 and underlining again the huge challenges the government faces.
Members of the army and the police voted on Monday, two days ahead of the poll, and the government also ordered all ministries closed as an extra security precaution. Shortly after voting for security forces began, a suicide bomber hit a polling station in West Baghdad, killing five people.
Security has been one of the major issues of the campaign, with many Iraqis angry that civilians have become such regular targets in daily car bombings, suicide attacks or shootings.
With more troops noticeable around the capital, some shops and business have already been shuttered ahead of the poll and many usually busy streets are considerably quieter.
Bloodshed has almost reached levels not seen since 2006 – 2007, when tens of thousands were killed in tit-for-tat sectarian attacks and the country was on the brink of all-out civil war. Almost 1,700 civilians were killed in just the first three months of this year, according to UN figures.
“The politicians don’t care about the violence. They are only interested in money,” one man told Al Jazeera at the scene of a suicide attack on a café in central Baghdad last week.
That accusation, that corruption is endemic, is another key concern of voters in a country that, despite huge oil wealth, often struggles to keep the lights on and have the rubbish collected.
With unemployment high, many Iraqis complain they can’t find work and, according to official figures, nearly 10 million people live on or below the poverty line, surviving on less than $5 a day.
Though the revenue earned from rising oil output, higher now than under former leader Saddam Hussein, has not yet filtered down to all Iraqis, it is still arguably the only success story for the government. Aware of that, ISIL and other groups opposed to Maliki, regularly target pipelines and refineries.
Opposition parties, and many Iraqi voters, want to see the wealth shared more equally.
Despite such a catalogue of grievous problems, diplomats and analysts told Al Jazeera that Maliki is expected to be returned to a third consecutive term in office, though it will be a tight race.
For the past four years his Dawa party, which is a Shia organisation, has been the leading group in the State of Law coalition, a bloc that was formed with the support of Sunni and Kurdish groups, a mix that became more delicate and strained as sectarian tensions grew across the country.
Analysts say that Maliki has become more sectarian in his outlook since the last election and Sunni politicians – many of whom say he is morphing into a dictator – accuse him of shoring up power, and exercising an increasingly iron-clad grip over the security forces, at their expense.
“I think it’s clear that over the last two terms there has been an erosion of the independence of institutions,” a Western diplomat said. “But any Shia prime minister would face many of the same pressures … Those are structural pressures. It doesn’t depend on one individual.”
Maliki’s supporters, and some diplomats, told Al Jazeera that he is far from a dictator and that he needs to exercise strong control over the military campaign, with ISIL buoyed by its involvement in the war in neighbouring Syria and receiving a boost in manpower, weapons and finance.
The two battlefields, many military analysts now say, are becoming one.
Voting is anticipated to largely go along sectarian lines too, with the parts of the country that are mostly Sunni or Kurdish expected to vote for a wide mix of parties formed from those groups.
Adding to a volatility that some Iraqis fear could drive the country back to the dark days of 2006 – 2007 is heavy fighting in the Sunni Anbar province, where ISIL has taken territory.
With the group in control of parts of Fallujah, a city just 65kms from Baghdad, many in the capital are worried by how close they are.
Coalition government is a certainty given the fractured nature of Iraq’s politics. And if Maliki’s Dawa leads again, the administration is expected to be more Shia-dominated than before, analysts say, which will not do much to placate his Sunni opponents.
The campaign itself has been lively, with posters and bunting fighting for space in the capital, strung up on lampposts, stuck to the sides of bridges and hanging from underpasses. Debate between the government and the opposition has been passionate and, during some rallies in Baghdad, the microphones were so loud and the speeches so fiery, they could be heard for kilometres.
Despite the ever-present threat of violence, most people on the streets of the capital told Al Jazeera that, while worried, they intended to vote, trusting that the security forces could keep broad control.
“I’ll vote in the elections and try to choose the best,” Ali Abdul Latif, 61, told Al Jazeera in Baghdad’s central al-Azi neighbourhood as he shopped at a market. “We are Iraqis. We must work for change.”
Follow Barry Malone on Twitter: @malonebarry