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.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP
An Iraqi Army soldier carries a box of ballot tally sheets for the Iraq election to an Iraqi military cargo plane bound for Baghdad, Monday.

The Iraq election has shored up the country’s fragile democracy, but the months ahead are fraught with potential dangers far more worrying than the bombs that echoed through Baghdad as voters went to the polls over the weekend.

With their second national election since Saddam Hussein was toppled behind them, Iraqi politicians' attention has turned to what sort of alliances are likely to be forged to form a new government – a process that could take well into the spring, or even early summer.

None of the parties by themselves are powerful enough to form a government. Early indications show Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Rule of Law coalition leading in the south, but former premier Iyad Allawi’s list coming in either second or third in each of the southern provinces.

Mr. Maliki, who heads the current Shiite-dominated government, has traditionally been strong in the Shiite south but voters across the country seem to be continuing a trend of turning away from religion-based parties in favor of coalitions they believe can offer them more basic things such as jobs and electricity.

The prime minister though remains personally popular for having taken on Shiite militias – sending in the Iraqi Army to drive them out from Basra and other cities that had fallen under their control. His support declines, however, in the largely Sunni West and in the north, where many Iraqis feel they’ve been neglected by the central government.

Allawi, a secular Shiite, who was installed as transitional prime minister by the US in 2003, heads a broader-based coalition that is also seen as less sectarian.

The major Kurdish parties are expected to play a key role in building or breaking any coalition.

“None of [the major parties] will have enough votes to form the government so definitely the Kurds can play a very important role,” Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, told the Monitor in a recent interview. “For us in the Kurdistan regions, we are not going to decide until after the elections on how to be part of the alliances because there are many important issues we should negotiate.”

He said that included the commitment of any potential coalition parties to solving the issue of Kirkuk, the disputed oil-rich city which Kurds claim as their historic capital.

Concern about a possible vacuum

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.

“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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