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After Iraq election, fragile democracy faces the real test

Sunday's Iraq election saw good turnout despite scattered violence. But with no party powerful enough to rule alone, the tough task of coalition building begins for the nascent democracy.

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Any alliances appear possible, but one that relies on the Kurds to cement Allawi’s list could potentially be problematic. That list includes the Mosul-based party al-Hadbaa, which came to power in the provincial elections last year on what was widely seen as an anti-Kurdish platform.

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“I would watch and if the Kurds are isolated I think all bets are off in the north and there could be potential flash points of violence there,” says Scott Carpenter, who was involved in forming the first Iraqi government as the head of governance in the US Coalition Provisional Authority.

The many weeks – and possibly months – it will take to form a new government is another worry. According to the Constitution, a new government should be formed a month after election results are certified – in this case toward the end of April.

“I am concerned that there will be a constitutional vacuum when the council [of representatives] ends this period,” said Iyad al-Samurai, speaker of the current parliament, in an interview shortly before the election. “Anything that happens between these two periods when you need a council and you don’t have it yet there will be a problem,” he said.

He said the alternative is to give the Iraqi president more emergency powers or have the federal court decide how to handle a constitutional vacuum – a matter the court has been unwilling to delve into.

62 percent turnout – down from more than 78 percent

Election officials said 62 percent of Iraq’s 18 million registered voters cast their ballots. In Baghdad, where a morning of explosions and widespread voter cynicism appeared to have affected the turnout, that percentage fell to a little over 50 percent.

The figures are a sharp contrast with the more than 78 percent of voters who cast their ballots in the first parliamentary elections in 2005.

“You see this in places where in the first elections there is this euphoria and it begins to drop off,” says Mr. Carpenter, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative think tank. “You saw this in Poland, you saw this in Indonesia. You wouldn’t expect it to be the same.”

With widespread participation in the elections, the main lesson seems to be a realization – particularly among Sunnis – that the only lasting power is political power. A call from a leading Sunni politician banned for alleged Baathist sympathies was a powerful indication of that view.

“People can debate the cost but we have created for Iraqis to have a different way of politics and it was up to them to see what they would make of it,” says Carpenter. “I think these elections reinforced the idea that although this has been traumatic for the American people and the Iraqi people, it hasn’t been a waste of time."

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