Iraq election: Will Prime Minister Maliki lose his job?

With 80 percent of the Iraq election votes counted, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is neck and neck with former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Even if Maliki wins the popular vote, he may not be able to hold together a coalition government.

By , McClatchy Newspapers

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    Iraq Election: An election campaign poster for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is seen in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday.
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Nearly half a million people voted for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in Baghdad, making him by far the leading candidate in the province where the most seats are at stake, according to partial results from this month's election in Iraq.

Those hundreds of thousands of supporters in the capital, along with many thousands more who voted for Maliki's coalition in outlying provinces, could be in for a jolt in coming months if his powerful enemies succeed in derailing his bid for a second term as prime minister

Especially now that he's neck and neck with a secular rival, former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Maliki's chances of retaining his premiership are dubious.

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Maliki has no outright majority, no mandate and precious little support from factions that would be the key to his survival. The campaign against him is so robust that members of his own State of Law coalition haven't ruled out dumping him as the prime minister nominee in order to lure partners that would give them a dominant voice in the next government, according to interviews with Maliki's allies, opponents and independent observers.

Even if Maliki pulls off a second term over the objections of rival parties, his opponents have said privately that they'd block his efforts in parliament and open up potentially embarrassing corruption inquiries, strategies that could lead to an even weaker and more violent Iraq just as U.S. forces prepare for a full withdrawal by the end of next year.

"There's a lot of resistance to him. There are a number of parties who'll find it difficult to strike a deal in a new government with him as prime minister, not necessarily with his coalition," said a Western diplomat, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to make public statements. "On the other hand, if he does especially well, a large seat differential between his coalition and the second-place finisher, that'll change the dynamic."

Neck and neck with Allawi

With about 80 percent of votes counted, the race is too close to call, but so far there's only a minuscule seat differential between Maliki's bloc and the mixed-sect ticket led by Allawi, a secular Shiite Muslim who appears to have picked up the Sunni Muslim vote. As of late Tuesday, Allawi had even edged ahead of Maliki in the nationwide popular vote.

At last count, Maliki's bloc was ahead in seven provinces, Allawi's Iraqiya slate was ahead in five and the main Kurdish coalition and the Shiite religious Iraqi National Alliance were leading in three provinces apiece. With no faction expected to win a clear majority, the season has arrived for deal-making and shifting alliances.

While Maliki's State of Law coalition is among the most cohesive, mainly because his Dawa Party forms the backbone, his co-candidates are bracing for an uncomfortable ultimatum from opponents: Drop the coalition's main attraction — the man who got them the most votes — or risk losing influential allies that could transform those votes into real power in the next government.

"The State of Law alliance is directly tied to the persona of Maliki, so nominating somebody else is a betrayal to the voters," says Sajah Qaddouri, a Dawa Party candidate from Maliki's coalition. "If the other political blocs forced or imposed another character, this is an appropriation of our rights. But Mr. Maliki would accept the nomination of someone else if it's in the interest of the future of Iraq. For now, we don't have a substitute. We respect the will of the people. But if the future of Iraq requires us changing Maliki, we'd change him."

To his supporters, Maliki is the leader who stood up to fellow Shiites — followers of the militant cleric Muqtada al Sadr — in order to quash militia violence and impose a semblance of order on his anarchic, long-suffering nation. A conservative Shiite guerrilla in his opposition days, Maliki has rebranded himself a nonsectarian centrist, courting voters who'd grown alarmed at the extremism of Iraq's leading politicians.

His detractors, however, have portrayed him at various times as an American puppet, an Iranian proxy, a grandstander given to authoritarian whims and a die-hard Islamist who still reverts to sectarian talk when it's politically expedient. Those detractors form a mosaic of Iraq's biggest forces, including some prominent Kurds, Allawi, most Sunnis and almost every other large Shiite grouping: the Sadrists, the Fadhila Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

"The last man standing will be prime minister, and Maliki will be shot down by the Kurds, Allawi, ISCI and the Sadrists," says a senior candidate from a rival Shiite party, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive topic. "...The Americans now will face a huge problem. Any prime minister will not be strong. They'll all have burdens. I don't think any Cabinet will survive four years."

(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this article.)

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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq

Follow Middle East news at McClatchy's Middle East Diary

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