It took three weeks for Iraqs election commission, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), to tabulate all the votes cast in the March 7 general elections. The results, which were announced on March 26, gave the largest number of seats to the Iraqiya grouping a coalition of 45 parties, most of them Sunni led by Iyad Allawi, closely followed by incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikis State of Law alliance. Allawis party got 91 seats, while the Prime Ministers bloc got 89. The results are somewhat of a surprise though most analysts had predicted that no single grouping would get an outright majority. Before the elections, the State of Law party was expected to get the largest chunk of the seats. But the Prime Ministers decision to support the de-Baathification campaign, which barred prominent Sunni politicians from contesting, seems to have backfired.
The alliance between the two main Kurdish parties the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan called Kurdistania won 43 seats. The Iraqi National Alliance came third, with 70 seats. The majority of these seats were won by supporters of the outspoken anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The support of 162 legislators is needed to form a government. The two parties that have emerged on top are nowhere near that magic figure.
The threat of political instability looms. A bomb explosion in Diyala province near Baghdad on the day the results were announced killed 59 people and injured more than 70. Malikis supporters in southern Iraq, where he won heavily, are threatening to resort to violence if their candidate leaves the Prime Ministers office. Bombs have started exploding on the roadside with alarming regularity again, mainly targeting Allawis supporters.
In Baghdad, a sniper shot dead a Sunni supporter of Allawi who was distributing sweets in his constituency after the election results were announced. The election results have the potential to deliver a deadly blow to the reconciliation efforts that have been under way for the last two years.
Maliki wasted no time in rejecting the results, saying that the announcement by the IHEC was only preliminary in nature. He insisted that there was no way he could accept the result. Maliki told the Iraqi media that there should be a manual recount of the votes and that as the Commander-in-Chief of the Iraqi army he could not allow a fraud to occur.
Iraqiya party officials have expressed fears that Maliki will use his position as caretaker Prime Minister to induce defections from other parties. The election commission said that a recount would take months to complete. Faraj al-Haidary, the head of the IHEC, said that asking for a manual recount is like asking for a rerun of the entire election. International observers and Christopher R. Hill, the American Ambassador in Iraq, praised the conduct of the elections.
Maliki has reason to be upset as Allawi, having bagged more seats, will have the first shot at forming the government. Allawi has already started moves to win over other parties. There are no anti-defection laws for Iraqi parliamentarians. The horse-trading seems to have already started in Baghdad. Allawi has called on the Kurdish and Shia parties for support to form a government of national unity. He has to stitch together a majority within a months time. To do this, he has to convince prominent Shia and Kurd politicians to back him. Having run on a secular platform and having the tacit support of the United States, Allawi is going to find this a tough thing to do.
Besides, Iran, which has a lot of influence over the Shia parties, is extremely suspicious of Allawis antecedents. A stable Iraq, however, is in Irans national interests. Teheran is aware that sectarianism can be exploited by the occupation forces to prolong their stay. The election results have shown that the majority in Iraq have shunned the politics of sectarianism, which was encouraged by the U.S. occupation. Pitting Shia and Sunni factions against each other had become part of the U.S. strategy in Iraq. The hope was that the internecine fight would exhaust the Iraqi people and allow the U.S. to implement its blueprint for the region.
If Allawi fails to get majority support, President Jalal Talabani will call on another candidate to try and form the government. Maliki, meanwhile, is leaving no stone unturned to cling to his job. Just before the formal announcement of the election results, the Iraqi Supreme Court issued a ruling that allows the interim Prime Minister to form the new government. The ruling states that the largest bloc can be a coalition of two parties. This would allow the two Shia-led parties Malikis State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance to form the government.
In a parallel move, the commission set up to purge the Baathists said that it would disqualify around 50 of the newly elected parliamentarians, most of them from Allawis Iraqiya party. A senior U.S. embassy official in Baghdad said that Maliki would use every means at his disposal to cling to power. The official expressed the hope that the Prime Minister would stick to his earlier commitment to work within the Constitution and the rule of law.
In any case, most observers are of the view that it will be extremely difficult for Allawi to cobble up the numbers. To do so, he will have to cut deals with the Kurdish and Shia parties. The election results have shown that he draws much of his support from the Sunni parties.
Unlike in previous elections, Sunnis came out in large numbers this time and voted almost exclusively for the Iraqiya grouping. In Kirkuk province in northern Iraq, where the electorate was polarised on the Kurdistan issue, Arab votes, Sunni as well as Shia, went to the Iraqiya party. Allawi, while on the campaign trail, took a strong stand against the political and economic concessions being doled out to the Kurd-administered part of northern Iraq. The bitter fight between Kurds and Arabs for the control of cities such as Kirkuk and Mosul was also a factor in the polls. The Sunnis are also known to be not too favourably disposed towards the Sadrists. The Sadrist militia was blamed for indiscriminately targeting Sunnis until a few years ago.
The Sadrists on their part have not forgotten the military assault launched on them by Allawi when he was Prime Minister. Allawi, who also holds a British passport, worked for the U.S. during his years in exile. The current Prime Minister, too, had launched a large-scale assault in Baghdad and Basra on the Sadrist militia. The Sadrist militia, known as al-Mahdi army, fought the occupation forces until a ceasefire was declared two years ago. For Sadr, who is studying to be an ayatollah in the Iranian city of Qom, the highest priority is ending the U.S. occupation. Legislators owing loyalty to him may shift their support to the candidate who supports the speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
The Sadrists have more than 40 seats in Parliament, and no candidate for the highest post can get a majority in Parliament without their support. They have become the kingmakers.
Many prominent Shia politicians besides the leading two contenders are vying for the top job. Adel Abdul Mahdi, currently one of the two Vice-Presidents, has been saying that it is his turn to become Prime Minister now. Ahmad Chalabi, who is currently heading the commission supervising the purge of Baathists, has made no secret of his vaulting ambitions. He has been boasting about his key role in convincing the George W. Bush administration to invade Iraq and get rid of Saddam. Another former Prime Minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, who had resigned in 2006 to make way for Maliki, now wants the favour returned.
The Sadrists will no doubt have a say in deciding who among these will be the next Prime Minister. Maliki became the Prime Minister in 2006 with their support. This time around they may plumb for a new face. Some of Malikis close associates recently said that they were willing to accept some other candidate if that was in the interests of the country.
The days of a strong Prime Minister cast in the Saddam mould could be over. A compromise candidate emerging as Prime Minister will be beholden to many factions. In fact, most Iraqis doubt whether the government will be able to complete its full four-year term in office.
Also looming is a fight for the presidency, a largely ceremonial office. The President is elected by Parliament. The current President has expressed a desire to quit. Anyway, with Sunni representation going up in the new Parliament, there is already a demand that the new President should be a Sunni. Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni who is currently a Vice-President, has shown interest in occupying the post.
There will also be fierce competition to occupy the Speakers chair. There will be a lot of deal-making in the coming weeks and months. Most Iraqis do not expect a new government to be in place any time soon, given the fractious outcome of the elections.