BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The voting may be over, but the March 7 parliamentary election viewed as a make-or-break moment for Iraq as it tries to emerge from decades of economic decline, dictatorship and war is far from over.
Despite a fall in violence over the last two years, the oil-producing country remains a dangerous place, with daily bombings hitting security forces and citizens alike and Sunni Islamist insurgents such as al Qaeda staging high-profile attacks.
With about 80 percent of the vote counted, Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc leads in seven of 18 provinces but trails former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s secular, cross-sectarian Iraqiya in the national popular vote.
Results are still coming in and the lasting picture, once results are finalised weeks from now, may look quite different.
Below are some possible scenarios:
With Maliki and Allawi running neck-and-neck, this is the scenario that appears to be unfolding. It means coalition building will probably take months, enmeshing Iraq in political horse-trading that may heighten insecurity if the wrangling among politicians leads to a prolonged political vacuum.
A deadlock may see increased behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by Iraq’s neighbours, with Iran on the side of Iraq’s Shi’ites and Gulf Arab states aligning with Sunnis and pushing their own ideal coalitions.
In this scenario, dominant political groups might seek a compromise candidate for premier who they view as malleable.
Analysts view a long squabble over the next government as a recipe for trouble. It took Iraqi politicians more than five months to form a government after parliamentary elections in 2005, and two years of bloody sectarian conflict followed.
If Iraq’s dominant Shi’ite parties align and push Allawi to the side, Sunnis, who voted heavily for Iraqiya, could effectively be disenfranchised, a troubling scenario.
MALIKI’S COALITION HANGS ON
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition made sweeping gains in local polls last year, using a nationalist law-and-order message to gain votes from Iraqis weary of sectarian politicking. He is leading in seven of 18 provinces at this point but his margins over a rival Shi’ite bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), in four of those provinces are weak.
While Maliki’s image has been weakened by major bombings and a determined effort by former allies to defeat him, he still holds powerful cards. If State of Law comes out ahead, he can claim a popular mandate and it is unlikely the coalition will try to dump him, some analysts say.
His coalition may try to ally with INA, its main rival for the Shi’ite vote. That could drive a wedge between the alliance’s main components -- the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI) and the movement of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadrists oppose Maliki and may have leverage because they appear to have done very well in the Baghdad vote.
Maliki and ISCI may seek to link up with smaller groups like the Sunni Accordance Front, once the country’s main Sunni bloc.
Kurdish support will also be key but may require hard bargaining by the State of Law since the semi-autonomous Kurds are angry at Maliki over disputed territories, and the fate of oil contracts in their region branded illegal by the government.
FORMER PM ALLAWI’S LIST ROBUST
Allawi’s Iraqiya list, which includes Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, was very narrowly ahead in the popular vote on Wednesday but lagged State of Law in provinces.
Iraqiya is leading in five provinces and may yet lose one of those, Kirkuk, where it holds a margin of only a handful of votes over the Kurdish Alliance.
Nonetheless, a victory in the popular vote could let Allawi claim a mandate and give him the upper hand in post-election negotiations. He has also burnished his nationalist credentials with a strong showing in multi-ethnic Kirkuk and by winning broad support from Sunnis angered after senior Sunni lawmaker and Iraqiya member Saleh al-Mutlaq was banned from standing in the poll by a Shi’ite-dominated panel.
Allawi, a secular Shi’ite who was prime minister from 2004 to 2005, could conceivably join with almost anybody. But his coalition is also considered the most fragile, and foes could lure away some of his partners, leaving him vulnerable.
Once highly critical of Iranian interference, he is believed to have mended fences with Tehran and could therefore link up with the INA, many of whose leaders lived for years in Iran.
But many leading Kurds see Allawi’s coalition-members as hostile to their interests.
His biggest bargaining chip may be his emergence as the candidate of choice of the Sunnis, who voted in force in this election in a bid to ensure their place at the table in Baghdad. His nationalist, secular politics blended well with the Arab nationalist positions of many Sunnis.
INA’S PLAYING CARDS
Maliki’s support for the ban of around 400 candidates because of alleged links to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party may have eroded his image as a non-sectarian nationalist.
The INA, which includes ISCI, the Sadrists, Basra-based Fadhila party and Ahmed Chalabi, a former U.S. favourite, now holds narrow leads over State of Law in only three Shi’ite provinces and is considered vulnerable to rupture.
Iraq’s kingmaking Kurds could back ISCI to take the prime minister position. Possible prime minister candidates in this scenario are Finance Minister Bayan Jabor, former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari or Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
COULD KURDS PLAY KINGMAKER AGAIN?
The Kurds have been one of Iraq’s most cohesive political forces but may have been weakened in this election by the success of Allawi in the disputed oil region Kirkuk and the emergence of the Kurdish opposition group Goran, or Change.
The alliance of the Kurdish region’s two dominant parties -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) -- leads comfortably in Dohuk and Arbil provinces. But Goran mounted a serious challenge in Sulaimaniya and the alliance trails in Kirkuk, albeit by a handful of votes.
The Kurds have stayed clear of alliances with any particular side so that they can end up with whoever wins. Yet division could weaken the Kurds’ role as Iraq’s kingmakers. But as the analysts say, everyone wants to talk to the Kurds.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul
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