Iraq's Parliamentary election results were announced Friday afternoon: Ayad Allawi's Iraqi National Movement garnered 91 Parliamentary seats, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law 89. The Iraqi National Movement seems to have carried the popular vote in addition to districts that apportioned the largest number of seats. Allawi is himself Shiite, but he successfully reached across community lines to Sunni leaders in the first significant cross-sectarian political shift, and campaigned explicitly on moving beyond sectarianism. Sunni turned out to vote in the largest numbers of any community, sending a very hopeful signal about their belief in political means to achieve their goals. It would be a terrible pity if maneuvering for power by the two Shi'ia bloc leaders disappoint their -- and other Iraqis' -- hopes.
The Iraqi National Alliance (a pro-Iranian Islamist alliance that includes the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Muqtada al Sadr's party) collected 75 seats, with the Sadrists appearing the substantial majority. Kurdish parties (the Alliance and Change) tallied 57 seats. In order to form a government, a coalition will need at least 163 seats, so either of the major Shi'ia parties could form a government, but will need more than just Kurdish support (a second disappointment to Kurdish leaders, in addition that they did not poll decisively as expected in the disputed areas).
A unity government of the major Shi'ia parties seems unlikely unless Maliki were pushed aside and another party leader named. Maliki's insistence in remaining at the helm is what precipitated the rival Shi'ia slate's formation; but there's no reason to believe he would stand down now.
If Maliki were to get first shot at forming a government, he could conceivably do so with the Iraqi National Alliance (ISCI and Sadr). Such a government would have a decidedly pro-Iranian tilt. Being more secular, former Prime Minister Allawi's party would have a more difficult time allying with the Iraqi National Alliance. Perhaps a combination of granting Kurds ceremonial posts like the Presidency and keeping effective members of Maliki's government may bring them enough support, or peeling ISCI away from Sadr (Iraqi electoral law binds the coalitions only through voting, not government formation).
An Allawi-led government would be a much better outcome for U.S. interests than Maliki tilting toward Iran in order to gain ISCI/Sadr support. But we should anticipate extended negotiations while parties and even individual holders of Parliamentary seats (unlike the 2005 election, voters cast their ballots for individuals, not solely parties) are cajoled in.
If the count stands and is validated by the Supreme Court (ostensibly in three days' time), former Prime Minister Allawi will have the first chance to form a government. But Prime Minister Maliki denounced the results, demanding a recount and calling the validity of the election into question. He may genuinely believe fraud has delivered a close election. Though neither the United Nations nor the United States found evidence of such fraud.
American military leaders worry our involvement in Iraq will have made it safe for Iranian domination. That would be a bitter legacy, given all that our military in particular has given to build Iraq into a strong, stable society. This seems unlikely, though, for reasons that have little to do with U.S. policies and much to do with Iraqi nationalism. When I was in Iraq last fall, Iran had a major "soft power" effort underway in Basra, sending barges of fresh water when Iraqi rivers failed to provide enough. Instead of gratitude, Iraqis complained that they wouldn't need fresh water if Iranians weren't silting up the river, and besides, American bottled water tasted better.
The First Commandment of democratic politics is at work in Iraq: Thou Shalt Respect the Voters. Iraqi voters don't want Iran running their government or having sway in their society; that Prime Minister Maliki is seen -- rightly or wrongly -- as more susceptible to Iranian influence hurt him at the polls; and while his meeting with Muqtada al Sadr's party yesterday came well after the elections, it still caused concern inside Iraq. Leaders having to face the self-interest of the men and women of Iraq is the antidote to Iranian influence and to much else that ails Iraq.
Which is why Prime Minister Maliki striking poses about election fraud is so dangerous. Maliki had all the advantages of incumbency -- many of which he used in ways of questionable legality and that certainly appeared to politicize the role of government institutions. Just as one example, when the judiciary ruled the electoral commission could not exclude so vast a swath of candidates, Maliki asserted his executive authority as superior and upheld the exclusions. That the election was even close when he had put such a heavy thumb on the scales should, in fact, indicate to the prime minister that he failed to secure a mandate.
Even if a recount manages to reverse the standings of his Law party and former Prime Minister Allawi's party, Maliki's insistence on remaining at the top of the ticket hurt his party. The Shiia parties would not have run two slates in the Parliamentary election if Maliki had been willing to let another candidate stand at the helm.
Many democracies, especially those that have been given their impetus by outside power, hold successful elections once or twice, then have their weak institutions perverted by "strong men" -- by which is meant leaders that come to power legitimately then refuse to return it, either doing away with the institutions and practices of representative government or turning them into formulaic but meaningless (think East German elections) hypocricy that fool no one, least of all their own citizens.
It is in Nouri al-Maliki's own hands whether he goes down in history as a courageous leader who piloted Iraq through the storm of sectarian violence and establishment of institutions to a peaceful and prosperous future, or as a craven politician who would bring Iraq's nascent democracy down in order to hold onto power he could not earn at the ballot box.