Iyad Allawi, Iraq’s interim Prime Minister, called for unity yesterday but in the wake of the election for the National Assembly his countrymen remain deeply divided along religious and ethnic faultlines.
“Starting from today, I will begin a new dialogue to make sure that all Iraqis have a voice,” Mr Allawi said as the interim government celebrated an unexpectedly high turnout at the polls on Sunday.
The success or failure of the National Assembly depends on whether it can meet voters’ high expectations, said Mahmoud Othman, who is sure to be a member of it because he is fourth on the list of Kurdish candidates.
Mr Othman, a veteran and highly respected politician, said a new government must be able to talk to the resistance, arrange a timetable for an American withdrawal and end the economic and social crisis in Iraq. He said: “If the new government is a photocopy of the old one, then that is not so good. The people expect change.”
The make-up of the 275-member assembly will take time to establish. In the election, Iraq was treated as one constituency in which each party that submitted a slate of candidates will be allocated seats in proportion to the percentage of the vote it received. The three big winners are expected to be the Kurds, the Iyad Allawi list, which was expected to attract many secular voters, and the so-called Shia list, created under the auspices of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shia spiritual leader.
Ghassan Attiyah, a political scientist and writer, said it would be highly polarising if the Shia and the Kurds were dominant. This would further alienate the Sunnis. The Kurds, themselves mostly Sunni, and the Shia have difficulty in agreeing common policies.
Mr Attiyah said: “If the Shia list has 140 seats, the Kurds 65 to 70 and Allawi with most of the rest it will not be good news. It would also help if the smaller parties win votes because then there will have to be compromises in sharing power.”
It would be better, Mr Attiyah said, if the Shia list got 70 to 75 seats, Mr Allawi 60 to 65 , the Kurds 60 to 65 and the rest to smaller groups. If the Shia list is denied an overwhelming victory the other two communities will be less worried.
Mr Allawi’s party seemed to be gaining ground before the poll because he had portrayed himself as the only secular candidate likely to do well. This made him attractive to well-educated urban voters in Baghdad and Basra who fear the clerical parties. But Shia list leaders insist they swept the board in much of southern Iraq.
Mr Othman still thinks it would have been better if the poll had been delayed. The Sunni parties had also pleaded for this, saying they needed to persuade their community to take part. He says the Americans would not allow this.
It is unclear if Mr Allawi will survive as prime minister when the new assembly meets. It will elect a president and two vice-presidents who will in turn appoint a prime minister and ministers. But voters may be disillusioned if they find the same faces in a new government.
The last months of the old government were marked by a worsening economic crisis: There are acute shortages of electricity, petrol, kerosene for heating and bottled gas for cooking. This has led to a rise in prices.
The insurgency is so extensive that although the election may be a setback to it there is no chance of it disappearing and every expectation that it will continue to grow.
* The opponents of the Iraq war, France, Germany and Russia, hailed the elections as a success yesterday and, in a sign of warming transatlantic ties, pledged to back American efforts to restore stability.