Police, firemen and prisoners are among hundreds of thousands of Iraqis casting an early vote today ahead of provincial elections this weekend that will mark the first test of Iraq’s fledgling democracy since 2005.

The polls, in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces, pit the Dawa Party of Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, against rival Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and secular parties, giving an idea of the strongest powers ahead of a general election in December.

The main vote on Saturday will also sample the capability of the Iraqi police and army, with U.S. troops taking a backseat role. The Iraqi security forces are voting today to enable them to concentrate on their job on Election Day.

Hospital patients are also eligible for the early vote.

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Exiting a polling station, policeman Mohaned Mohamed dried his index finger with a tissue after dipping it in a pot of indelible ink. Each person must put purple ink on one finger after voting to prevent anyone from voting multiple times.

“It was a wonderful experience, the end of dictatorship,” said Mohamed, 31. He, like many people, was unable to go to the ballot box in general elections three years ago or to the last provincial polls in January 2005 because of the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq.

“I came today to elect the right people to serve our country,” the policeman said with a smile, noting that he had voted for a list backed by the Sadr Office, the political wing behind Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shia cleric.

More than 14,400 candidates representing 407 parties, independent lists and individuals are vying for just 440 seats on the councils that govern the 14 provinces participating in the vote.

In Baghdad, 57 seats are up for grabs on the provincial capital and competition is set to be fierce.

An impossible array of campaign posters cover shop fronts, blast walls and lamp posts as rival parties try to get their message across.

Schools across the country have been converted into polling stations for the day. More than 1,600 voting centers opened at 7a.m. and will close at 5 p.m.

Click here to read more on this story from the Times of London.