Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's electoral list narrowly edged the incumbent Prime Minister Nuri Maliki's State of Law alliance in the official (but uncertified) results of the March 7 elections announced today. The horse-trading and deal-making which will produce a new government will now accelerate. But to a very large extent, a little-noticed Federal Supreme Court decision yesterday drained the drama from today's announcement. Despite Allawi's winning two more seats than his rival, he may not get the chance to form a government. Allawi's chances of becoming Iraq's Prime minister will hinge largely on the question of how much Maliki's Shiite rivals really hate him... and how loyal his political allies will be if their Shiite co-religionists make his exit a condition to forming a government.
The performance of Allawi and his Iraqiyya list's performance represent a major, even stunning political realignment. But the Iraqi Supreme Court's ruling yesterday means that contrary to general belief, he is not guaranteed the first opportunity to form a government. The ruling hinges on the interpretation of Article 76 of the Iraqi constitution, which mandates that the new president authorize a prime minister-designate representing the largest parliamentary bloc to attempt to form a government. There has been some controversy over what this meant in practice. The Federal Supreme Court interpreted the clause broadly and decided that "largest parliamentary bloc" referred to any parliamentary bloc in existence at the time when the president makes his designation -- not to the lists which contested the election. If the court had ruled narrowly, then the razor-thin difference in seats would have had profound effects. As it stands, Maliki and Allawi now enter this next phase of horse-trading basically even.
While Maliki continues to complain of electoral fraud with ever angrier language, a recount does not appear likely based on the public pronouncements of the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq. This view is supported by the most recent comments of Ad Melkert, the United Nations' Special Representative for Iraq, who has indicated repeatedly that he has not been presented with credible evidence of serious electoral fraud. The electoral results will be finalized following Federal Supreme Court ratification once all complaints have been considered. At that point, the current president, Jalal Talabani, will call upon the new parliament to convene within 15 days of the ratification. Instead of Allawi's winning coalition having an automatic first shot at forming a government, however, any new coalition with more seats which can be cobbled together before the parliament is seated will gain that advantage.
With the process therefore wide-open despite Allawi's victory, the core contradictions of Iraqi politics will be on display as a government is cobbled together. No Iraqi governing coalition will be a natural ideological fit. In fact, any feasible coalition will produce mind-bending alliances of convenience that defy easy categorization, particularly with respect to the decisions of the Sadrists and the Kurds, who will constitute key targets for Allawi and Maliki.
The Sadrists have bitter memories of both men as prime minister. Allawi supported the August, 2004 U.S. assault on the Mahdi Army in Najaf, and Maliki launched a wide-ranging and highly-successful military campaign against these Shiite militias beginning in March, 2008 in Basra, Baghdad, and other areas of the south. Of course, it is almost breathtaking to imagine the Sadrists reasserting their nationalist credentials in an Allawi government that represents many of the same Sunnis that the Mahdi Army had only recently ethnically cleansed from Baghdad. When discussing Allawi in the summer of 2004, Sadr famously said that referring to him as a Shiite was like calling Saddam Hussein a Muslim. But the Sadrists have expressed a particularly pointed antipathy toward Maliki, and their decision on whether to recreate a post-election Shiite super-list will go a long way toward elucidating the possible paths of government formation. Their distaste for the prime minister was expressed when their nominal leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, recently referred derisively to Maliki's State of Law alliance as the "State of Terror."
The Kurds, on the other hand, have gone some way to mending fences with the prime minister following a period of increasing tensions. As Maliki sought to portray himself as an Iraqi nationalist in recent years, he has often chosen to express this posture through his increasingly vocal stance against far-reaching Kurdish aspirations. While this approach curried cross-sectarian favor with many of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who likewise have taken a dim view of Kurdish positions on power, resources, and territory, it initiated an escalation that culminated in several tense military standoffs between the Kurdish "peshmerga" and national forces directed by Maliki. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and Maliki reportedly would not speak to each other for months. But recent moves indicate a rapprochement of sorts, perhaps as a preemptive move to block Allawi from the premiership. Allawi's inclusion of the fiercely anti-Kurdish al-Hadba party in his al-Iraqiya list, along with his general appeal to the Sunni constituency, worries Kurds who fear that Baghdad might turn sharply against their interests and prerogatives. While Allawi has already begun wooing the Kurds, it is hard to conceive of a possible political deal that could assuage Kurdish demands without destroying his own far-reaching alliance with Sunni leaders.
Of course, there are also a host of smaller parties such as the humbled Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Tawaffuq list, which had once laid claim to leadership among Iraq's Sunnis. ISCI has become a junior partner to the Sadrists within the Iraqi National Alliance under which both parties ran in the elections, as the open list electoral system allowed voters to choose Sadrist over ISCI figures. Maliki will no doubt seek to offer them inducements to break away and find a greater degree of prominence within a new government.
Maliki's most natural path for government formation is also fraught with some danger in that he will be faced with a more potent and unified opposition fuelled by Sunni support for Allawi. This could also be destabilizing if a government is perceived as reconstructing governments of old that were often seen as marginalizing Sunnis. As such, Maliki will try to lure smaller Sunni parties such as Tawaffuq into a government. He will plausibly argue that their role within the Sunni community, now diminished at the ballot box, could be partially restored with a place within the machinery of government and access to the networks of patronage.
While the scenarios for formation are endless, the key factor in almost all these decisions will be attitudes toward the prime minister, as opposed to a desire to join an Allawi government. Maliki has made many political enemies over the years, even within his own "natural" constituency. Maliki's electoral disappointment could mean that the most natural path to a government will require that Maliki step aside. Whether he is willing to do so is very much the question on Baghdad's mind tonight.
Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at The Century Foundation.