With elections less than a month away, Iraq's would-be politicians are getting a crash course in one of democracy's least glamorous features: preelection backroom haggling.
As the deadline looms for submitting party slates to Iraq's electoral commission, Iraqi candidates are vying for plum positions on the all-important lists, which will determine who gets a seat in Iraq's new national parliament.
In a sense, these backroom bargains are the elections before the elections, pitting big players - mainly well-organized former exiles - against more-popular homegrown leaders, including top Shiite figures, the real king-makers in the process.
"The election is like an exam," says Sheikh Fatih Kashif al-Ghitta, a Shiite cleric from a prominent Najaf political family. "[It] will show who really has a base of popular support and who is a fake; who has religious authority and who does not. It will clarify many things."
Each group draws up a list of candidates, ranked first to last.
The total votes each party receives will determine how many seats it gets in Iraq's National Assembly. Because seats are doled out in the same order as the list, highly placed candidates are more likely to get a seat.
Every third candidate must be a woman, in order to avoid parties putting all the women at the bottom of the list, a typical maneuver in some countries with gender quotas.
Voters won't have to sift through hundreds of names at the ballot box; rather, they'll see parties' names and logos.
So far, about 238 "parties" - something of a misnomer, since informal groups and even individuals are free to run - have signed up for the elections. On Nov. 28, the election commission extended the deadline for the parties to submit their slates until Dec. 10 (Dec. 5 in provincial offices), adding to the intense speculation over what party lists will emerge.
The extension buys time for the interim government to woo Sunni opposition groups, many of whom have declared a boycott of the elections. If Sunnis sit out the elections, the new government's legitimacy could suffer. It's too late for Sunnis to sign up their own parties, but if prominent Sunnis could be talked into signing onto other lists, it would help the election's legitimacy.
The delay is also likely to help lesser-known candidates, many of whom are still negotiating with larger groups for better placement on the lists. Many smaller groups, especially homegrown Iraqi groups, are using the extra time to reach out to larger, more established political parties.
For most candidates, the best way to win a seat is to gain a top slot on a powerful party's list.
"It's very important for the independents to marry other lists," said Muhammad Kadhim Obeidi, an administrator in the Iraqi Democratic Congress, an umbrella group of 200-odd smaller parties and individual candidates. "The individuals have to band together. Because once they get their seats, they cannot accomplish anything without negotiation."
But aligning themselves with a powerful group can also hurt smaller players: the bigger and more powerful the group, the greater the chance it might stick the small group's candidates at the bottom of its list, decreasing their chances of getting any seats.
The hottest ticket in town is the main Shiite slate, which is endorsed by Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's foremost religious authority and kingmaker.
Ayatollah Sistani insisted that Iraq's Shiite majority, long suppressed by the Sunni minority and eager to take power, form a unified slate that will almost certainly have the maximum of 275 candidates.
But Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite clergy's enfant terrible, is reportedly causing an uproar by insisting that some names be thrown off the unified Shiite list.
He's also demanding top billing, above former Governing Council members Ibrahim Jafari and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, both former exiles. "Moqtada argues that he is better known and more popular than all of them," says Mr. Ghitta.
The Shiite Political Council, headed by onetime Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi, is aligning itself with Mr. Sadr. But Chalabi, a secular Shiite, is not considered a major player by most Iraqi analysts. "Ahmed Chalabi is making his last effort to get somebody to support him, and I think that with the reelection of Mr. Bush, he has lost his last hope," said Jawad.
In Kurdistan, the longtime dominance of two major Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, leaves prospects for independents grimmer than in other parts of Iraq. On Wednesday, the two parties crushed any hopes of a real referendum on their popularity by announcing that they would merge into one party list.
"This election will be very weak - it will be like a questionnaire, not an election," says Shwan Mahmood, political editor of the independent newspaper Hawlati.
"These parties ...do not play the democratic game. So if they have one list, they will not let any independents get very far," he says. "We can look at Iraqi politics as a closed circle. Anybody who is outside this circle will lose - they won't gain anything from this election."
But some small-party candidates remain cautiously optimistic - at least until the party slates are announced.
"Usually, there are considerable pressures against independents in Kurdistan," says Qadir Aziz, Secretary-General of the Kurdistan Workers Party, weighing his words carefully. "But when we see that there are so many international monitors, we hope that things will be better this time."