After a historic election in early March, Iraq’s new government is still months from formation as political leaders jockey for position in a race that appears to have little to do with voters.
Initial results from the March 7 vote for only the second parliament since Saddam Hussein was toppled put Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite coalition narrowly behind that of his secular Shiite challenger Ayad Allawi.
While political leaders made a flurry of what officials called unseemly visits to neighboring Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, all believed to have played a backstage role in the elections, an Iraqi appeals panel upheld a challenge by the prime minister and ordered a recount of more than 20 percent of the votes cast in Iraq.
“You still get the sense that Maliki is hoping some sort of miracle is going to put him in the lead in terms of number of seats in parliament and as long as he clings to that hope the whole process will get delayed,” says Reidar Visser, an Iraq expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
With the UN having said it had not seen any evidence of widespread fraud, the recount was widely seen as a bow to political pressure. The painstaking manual count of more than 2 million votes cast in and around Baghdad and investigation of other complaints is expected to delay certifying the tally by several weeks.
No party talks yet
Positions in the 325-seat parliament were split between four main political blocs, meaning that at least three of them would probably have to band together to form a comfortable majority. But six weeks after the vote, serious talks still haven’t begun.
“I don’t detect serious movement yet on the real decisions regarding government formation,” says Ambassador Gary Grappo, political counselor at the US embassy in Baghdad. “I could envision a scenario where it might go relatively quickly and you could have something by early June but it could drag through the summer.”
US and Iraqi officials say the political parties are willing enough to bargain that a coalition government could take almost any kind of form but will have a hard time overcoming their objections to the leaders themselves.
Maliki emerged during his four years in power as an autocrat who alienated almost all of his coalition members and former political allies. Allawi, a former prime minister with US ties, has been painted by religious Shiite parties as pro-Baathist. Many officials say it could be difficult for either of them to build enough support to head a government, which could lead to a lesser-known compromise candidate becoming prime minister.
“You don’t find the kind of debate you might find in a more advanced democracy when you’re talking about fiscal policies, great social policies or health care things of that nature,” says Ambassador Grappo. “They’re wondering which party may get which ministry and specifically which party or coalition may be placed there…so it’s more along personalities.”
“There is a lot of bad blood between the personalities and there are a lot of different personalities involved,” says a senior Kurdish official who asked to remain anonymous so he could speak more candidly. “The optimistic scenario is that this will drag on until May or June – some people are giving it until August or September.”
“As far as we are concerned we don’t have any red lines against anybody,” he says, referring to how the Kurdish bloc expected to be a powerbroker in the coalition-building.
Kurdish leaders made clear before the election that the Kurds, who have won at least 56 seats, would support whoever was prepared to offer them the most on Kirkuk and other disputed areas.
Unable to agree
With voters widely rejecting politicians who focused on religion rather than basic services, analysts say the debate has more to do with party politics than the Iraqi people.
“Really the resistance to Allawi is most pronounced at the level of the leaders and not the general population,” says Mr. Visser. “We should not forget that Allawi was able to attract hundreds and thousands of votes south of Baghdad as well – he actually has some support in most Shiite areas.”
Visser, editor of the Iraq website Historiae.org, believes both Maliki and Allawi’s supporters want many of the same things, including a strong, central government controlling the oil sector. While everyone calls for a government with more Sunni participation than the last, there are fears that a coalition that is too broad-based could be paralyzing.
“The only thing we can say with certainty is if we get this big government with all four alliances it will hardly be able to agree on anything,” Visser says. “Then you will have a big parliamentary majority but they won’t be able to use it for anything because they wont be able to agree.”
Complicating government formation are fractures within the Shiite parties themselves. Before the election, Maliki broke away from his original coalition over a dispute over how much power he should have. Talks to unify the main three Shiite parties again have failed – seemingly over the same issue, analysts said.
One of the main Shiite blocs, the Sadr movement, has been at odds with Maliki since he sent troops against their military wing in Basra and Sadr City two years ago. Inclusion of the Sadrists within a coalition would also complicate relations with the United States. Fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have fought US forces in the streets and the organization refuses to meet with or deal with US officials.
Some fear that a failure to build an effective and inclusive coalition government this time could tear the country apart.
“I believe this period is the most dangerous period here in Iraq,” Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari says. “I don’t want to sound alarmist but unless we get it right, unless we fix the government formation, if one group feels they have been denied their victory, that they are marginalized…they will abandon the process and that will lead to the literal division of the country.”
(This story was edited after posting to correct the spelling of Reidar Visser's last name.)