The announcement on March 26 — shortly before Crescent went to press — that former Iraqi Prime MinisterAyad Allawi had won a narrow victory in the parliamentary elections held on March 7 was no great surprise, as the possibility of such a result had been widely flagged during the intervening three weeks. The result however is that Iraq faces a period of intense politicking, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said before the announcement that he would not regard the results as final, and threatened to fight for power rather than accepting defeat.
There is certainly no doubt that Allawi’s success is something of a surprise in terms of the pre-election expectations. In the period leading to the elections, he had been regarded as an outsider, with the incumbent Prime Pinister Nouri al-Maliki expected to win reasonably comfortably. This was reflected in Allawi’s immediate response to the polls, when he accused the government of involvement in massive polling irregularities and raised questions about the validity of the results. Meanwhile, Maliki expressed confidence in the integrity of the polls and that he had secured victory.
These knee-jerk reactions were reversed however as preliminary results emerged from the count, and it became clear that Allawi actually had a chance of winning; now Maliki was the one raising questions about the polling and demanding recounts, while Allawi insisted that everything was being done properly and the results due to be announced by Iraq’s electoral commission — which rejected all talk of a recount — should stand.
In fact, according to the results announced, Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement group won 91 of the 325 seats in parliament, compared to 89 won by Maliki’s State of Law coalition. The rest of the seats were won by various smaller groupings, including the Iraqi National Alliance, which consists largely of conservative Shi‘i groups, and two Kurdish groupings, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
With it always being clear that the post-election regime would be based on a coalition — no party having any chance of winning the 163 seats needed for an absolute majority — these groups are key players in the politicking that will dominate the next phase of Iraqi politics. Depending on how coalition talks develop, there may be months of uncertainty and possibly instability before a new government is finalised. Much will depend on how Nouri al-Maliki and his supporters react to their surprise defeat.
In that regard, the omens are not encouraging. The period between the polls and the results being announced were dominated by inflammatory comments from both major parties, which increased in their intensity as the closeness of the result became clear and the date for announcing it was repeatedly postponed.
Under the circumstances, it is difficult to assess integrity of the polls and validity of the result. It is certainly the case that there were reports of problems in some areas, but these were fewer than expected and anticipated. For what it is worth, international observers, such as the UN, concluded that the polls were largely fair and the result should be accepted by all sides. But frankly, this is probably what they would say anyway, as the US’s main concern is that elections should be recognised as legitimate in order to provide some spurious justification for their involvement in Iraq, as well as the political basis for the scheduled withdrawal of US combat troops in the summer.
Having said that, the election of Allawi is the result that the US and its allies would have favoured, were it not for one factor. The reasons the US prefers Allawi are clear enough: he is a pro-Western secularist with close ties to the US, Britain and Arabian states such as Saudi Arabia, which themselves are close to the US. Although a Shi‘i himself, he is supported by many Sunnis in Iraq, who feel threatened by Maliki and other overtly Shi‘i groups — a legacy of the bitter sectarianism that emerged after the US invasion. Compared to Maliki, whose powerbase is predominantly Shi‘i, and who many Americans regard as close to Iran, although he is not as close to Iran as the leaders of other Shi‘i political groups, Allawi is definitely someone the West would prefer to do business with.
The problem for the West is that the one thing they crave above all else in Iraq at the moment is stability, so the elections can be treated as a success, and the scheduled withdrawal of combat troops (other troops will remain with the approval of the Iraqi government) can go ahead without delay. And this is where Allawi’s election is problematic. He will find it much harder to form a government than Maliki would, for it will be much harder for him to secure the support of any Shi‘i faction, which he will need for a majority in parliament. It is a natural corollary of his position as enjoying the support mainly of minority groups that it is far easier for him to operate as an opposition leader than the leader of government.
The other factor that remains to be seen is how Maliki and his supporters will react to the fact of being defeated. In the run up to the announcement of the election results, they became increasingly belligerent, claiming that elections had been rigged against them and they would not allow Allawi to take office if he was declared the winner. Some of Maliki’s allies in the south of the country openly threatened violence if Allawi won the election, and Maliki himself said at one point that he would use his position as head of the armed forces to ensure that an unjust election result was not permitted to stand.
Whether these veiled threats come to anything is one of the key issues to be resolved over the next few weeks. However, the fact that Maliki’s group lost to Allawi’s by only two seats means that he could claim a mandate to form the next government if other minority groups prefer to form a coalition with his group rather than Allawi’s. This being the case, he may prefer to pursue a political strategy to ensure that Allawi doe not achieve power, rather than rejecting the results out of hand.
Much will also depend on the major groups whose support would enable either Allawi or Maliki to form a government. The major Shi‘i groups in the Iraqi National Alliance — the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council led by Aamer al-Hakim since the death of this father, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim last year, and the factions led byMoqtada al-Sadr — would prefer to deal with Maliki than Allawi, but will make considerable demands in return for their support. The Kurdish groups could happily give support to either of Allawi or Maliki; their main concerns are Kurdish rights relative to the power of the central government. However, as minorities, they may prefer an Allawi government in which they would be dealing with other minority communities, rather than being a junior partner in a Maliki government dominated by Shi‘i parties.
Officially Allawi has 30 days in which to form a government, but that deadline is unlikely to be met. However things develop over the next few weeks, the elections have demonstrated a number of points. First and foremost is that Iraq remains a deeply divided society in man ways, not least in sectarian terms. The spectre of sectarian violence, which has never completely disappeared, remains the greatest fear of many Iraqis. And second, that for all the claims of the US and the West, Iraq is far from stabilised, and the imposition under foreign occupation of Western style electoral politics is far from a panacea for the problems facing the country.