In a close race in the Iraqi parliamentary election, the coalition led by the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has a narrow lead, but will need to share power with other parties to form a new government.
The outcome of the poll is still uncertain because officials are still counting votes from the election last Sunday amid allegations of fraud. As in past elections the country’s three main communities – Shia, Sunni and Kurd – have voted along different lines.
Mr Maliki’s State of Law coalition appears to be getting most votes in the Shia provinces of southern Iraq, but the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), dominated by Shia religious parties, is not far behind. Mr Maliki’s supporters are heading the poll in Najaf and Hilla, while the INA is in the lead in Maysan province on the Iranian border. The Iraqiya party led by the former prime minister, Iyad Allawi, was ahead in mainly Sunni provinces, such as Salahudin and Diyala, north of Baghdad, but was trailing in Shia rural areas. Given that at least 60 per cent of the 19 million Iraqi voters are Shia Arabs and another 20 per cent are Kurds, Mr Allawi’s success will be limited if he has to rely on the Sunni vote.
The result of the election may be determined by what happens in Baghdad, with a population of six million, and Basra, Iraq’s second city, with two million. After the sectarian civil war of 2006-07, Baghdad is now an overwhelmingly Shia city and Mr Maliki, who did well in the capital in the provincial elections in 2009, will hope to repeat his success. The rival to the Prime Minister’s coalition in Shia areas is the INA of which the most powerful components are the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and followers of the anti-American cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.
The Sadrist movement, representing the Shia poor, is reported to have polled strongly in its old bastion of Sadr City, a Baghdad slum with a population of two million. The Sadrists say they will not accept Mr Maliki as prime minister again because they accuse him of betraying them after they helped vote him into office in 2006.
The other big player in future negotiations on establishing a new governmentwill be the Kurdish parties which are well-organised and have hitherto voted as a bloc in parliament. The Kurdish leaders have become increasingly hostile to Mr Maliki over the past two years because of his antagonistic stance on territories disputed between Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq. They will want him replaced unless he makes radical concessions. It would be almost impossible to form a stable government in Iraq without the Kurds being part of it.
Mr Maliki will remain Prime Minister during the months it will take to form a new government. But the state of his health is creating doubts about his future since he has not been seen since the election and had surgery on Wednesday to remove a cyst from his stomach.
His political strength stems from his personal popularity and control of the government with an annual budget of $60bn and vast patronage through control of millions of jobs. To secure any state job in Iraq, from village school teacher to oil industry executive, backing from a political party is necessary.
The outcome of the election is being closely watched by the US and Iraq’s neighbours. Though US commentators have suggested the US military withdrawal from Iraq, which is due by the end of 2011, could be delayed, this is very unlikely.
The US pullout was part of the State of Forces Agreement signed with Iraq in 2008 by President George W Bush. Mr Maliki’s reputation as a nationalist depends in part in his success in negotiating an end to the US occupation. President Barack Obama’s administration denies that Iraq is becoming more unstable.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”