Iraq's Close Elections: The Good and Bad

It's about as big as any political comeback can get. The long-delayed announcement of Iraq's election results Friday showed that former prime minister Ayad Allawi's party came out on top with 91 seats, narrowly edging out current prime minister Nuri al-Maliki's bloc, which won 89. Then again, Allawi once fended off an attack from an ax-wielding assassin, so his political opponents were probably unwise to have counted him out in the first place.

The results don't guarantee that Allawi will be chosen as prime minister. In fact, they are so close that they almost guarantee a long, drawn-out fight to form the next governing coalition. For now, Maliki has not even accepted the outcome; he's still demanding a recount. But that's going to be a tough sell, since both the U.S. and the U.N. have put out statements accepting the election results as legitimate. Allawi's biggest problem might be more extreme: the followers of fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have had a strong showing in the early results, and many of them loathe Allawi. The enmity dates back to a military operation that Allawi greenlighted in August 2004, pitting U.S. soldiers against Sadr's Mahdi Army in Najaf. The fighting left dozens of the militiamen dead and large swaths of the holy city of Najaf in ruins.

But aside from the political squabbling, the victory of Allawi's Iraqiya list illustrates two very important developments in Iraqi politics. First, Allawi's bloc was the de facto Sunni list in the elections—even though Allawi himself is Shia. His top running mate is Tareq Hashimi, the most prominent Sunni politician in Iraq. His bloc was the one most affected by the cutthroat de-Baathification efforts in the run-up to the elections; two of the top candidates from Allawi's list were pushed out by the commission overseeing de-Baathification. The fact that Allawi still managed to come out on top shows that the Sunnis, who many feared might boycott the elections because of the de-Baathification move, voted in big numbers.

At the same time, Allawi's bloc is arguably the most secular and ethnically mixed in the elections. That could indicate that Iraqis are moving toward a more nationalistic and less sectarian outlook. It also shows that religious parties, which dominated the last parliamentary elections, have lost some of their cachet. The Sadrists have still managed a decent showing, but the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) got, as former president George W. Bush might have put it, a "thumpin'." That's no small development, considering that ISCI is the party most closely allied with Tehran. And Allawi is the politician probably the furthest away from the Iranian orbit.

Now that the votes are counted comes, as the cliché goes, the hard part. Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, has said that the 60 days following the elections are the most dangerous, since the deal-cutting involved in building a coalition government can quickly devolve into political violence. There will be no shortage of opportunities for those looking to exploit outrages. Onetime U.S. favorite Ahmad Chalabi and his allies have voiced concerns that some successful candidates may be stripped of their victories via charges of Baathism.

If Iraqi politicians can't set aside such squabbles to form a government quickly, and if the U.N., the Iraqi electoral commission, and the U.S. are not emphatic about addressing charges of fraud, things could get very messy indeed. A couple of hours before the final election results were announced, a double bomb attack in the town of Khalis killed 42 people and injured 65. That shows there are still some Iraqis who are willing to sidestep the ballot box to push their interests. And if the government-formation process drags out, they're surely going to get more opportunities to make themselves heard.