The count complete, Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement, known as Iraqiya, narrowly won Iraq’s general election according to results released on Friday March 26th. Mr Allawi’s alliance is ahead by a margin of two seats, giving him the first chance to try to form a coalition government, but it is far from clear whether he will be able to get to a position to head the next government in Iraq.
The State of Law alliance which is led by the current prime minsiter, Nuri al-Maliki, came a close second. In third place is a Shia religious alliance that includes followers of a populist cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, with a strong showing in the eastern slums of Baghdad and in three southern provinces. A Kurdish alliance, the fourth main block, swept the Kurds’ three provinces in the north.
The parties may still have to wait several more weeks while voting disputes are resolved and seats in parliament allocated. A complex formula will boost representation for women and minorities (including Christians) and award extra seats to the largest parties. Only then will the winner be revealed. The group with the most seats will not necessarily have won most votes.
The slowness of the count contrasted with the frenetic pace of negotiations in Baghdad’s hotel lobbies and party headquarters. No alliance came even close to an outright win. Messrs Maliki and Allawi both face an uphill struggle to find a winning coalition. Their most obvious partners are the Kurds, who are part of the present government and will seek to stay on to defend their regional privileges. With two suitors wooing them, they will demand extra concessions.
But the Kurds are no longer the sole kingmakers. Assuming they act as one block, including a newish reform party called Goran (meaning Change) as well as the two older ones, their 50-odd seats would still not be enough to give either Mr Maliki or Mr Allawi the 163 seats they need to command a majority in parliament.
So the Iraqi National Alliance, an umbrella group for Shia religious parties that campaigned strongly against both men, may hold the final balance. Within that alliance, Mr Sadr has a role. But another part of the National Alliance, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), could also play a part, even though it did badly in the election, getting only a dozen seats. As part of Mr Maliki’s current government, ISCI will also be keen to stay on board, enjoying the perks and patronage of office. But it strongly opposes Mr Allawi’s anti-Iranian stance and in the past has quarrelled with Mr Maliki too. In any case, ISCI alone is too small to swing the balance.
Mr Sadr has more clout. He commands a militia known as the Mahdi Army that in the years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein battled ferociously against American, British and Iraqi government forces. In the election he cleverly exploited a legal provision letting voters rank candidates within an electoral block. His disciplined movement marshalled supporters to vote for specific candidates at the expense of others in his wider alliance. So in Baghdad, 11 of the 16 seats won by the National Alliance may go to Mr Sadr’s people. Overall, he may control up to 40 seats, perhaps enough to give Mr Maliki or Mr Allawi a majority together with the Kurds. But his price for co-operation is unclear.
The election results paint a spotty picture of Iraqi democracy and political attitudes. Support for Mr Allawi, a secular Shia who once belonged to Saddam’s Baath party, exceeded expectations. But that does not mean his brand of non-sectarian politics has prevailed. Much of his support comes from disaffected Sunnis in the north and west and from pragmatic, secular-minded Shias in Baghdad. Mr Allawi got almost no seats in the swathe of Shia-populated provinces in the south.
For his part, Mr Maliki got most of his backing from a core constituency in the south and in the Shia parts of Baghdad. He may not win a single seat north of the capital. So the main race is between two moderate lists, each with a sectarian and geographic tilt. That is better than last time, in 2005, when the divide was between Shias, who voted en masse, and Sunnis, who largely boycotted the poll.
Another change is the thinning out of small parties. Iraq’s new political system favours large coalitions. The Unity Alliance, a cross-sectarian competitor to Mr Allawi led by Jawad al-Bolani, the interior minister, was almost wiped out. In Kurdistan the reformists of Goran, which did well in regional elections a year ago, failed to make headway. Yet even the minnow parties may suddenly acquire influence if the coalition of Mr Allawi or Mr Maliki falls just shy of a majority.
Or the two men may consider forming a government of national unity. Their views are much closer than their fierce and rhetorically exaggerated campaign rivalry suggests. Together they would have a comfortable majority—and a chance to reconcile Iraq’s two main Muslim sects. The trouble is that neither man can abide the idea of playing second fiddle. In the end, one of them—or both—may have to be shoved off the stage by ambitious lieutenants capable of reaching across the aisle.