Iraq politics: Coalition-courting

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

The Iraqi general election has thrown up an inconclusive result. The final outcome will depend on a secondary contest between the two leading parties to form a majority bloc in parliament. If neither party can manage this, they may find that they have no option but to go for a government of national unity. Ayad Allawi, whose cross-sectarian Iraqiya alliance won the largest number of seats, would appear to have a slender advantage having technically “won” the election. However, his main rival, Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister and leader of the second-placed State of Law Alliance (SLA), has the advantage of the incumbency.

The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) announced the final results of the election on March 26th; almost three weeks after the votes were cast on the seventh of the month. It had been clear as the interim results came in that Mr Allawi’s bloc was likely to emerge just ahead of Mr Maliki’s SLA. It ultimately came down to just two seats, with Iraqiya securing 91 of the total 325 and SLA getting 89. The key to Mr Allawi’s success was his appeal to Sunni Arab voters, who had largely boycotted the previous elections in 2005 in protest at their perceived marginalisation in the face of Shia dominance of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Although Mr Allawi is of Shia origin, he presents himself as a secular nationalist. Iraqiya won two-thirds of the seats in the four mainly Sunni provinces (Anbar, Ninewa, Diyala and Salaheddin), pushed Mr Maliki close inBaghdad, with 24 of the 68 seats to 26 for the SLA, and managed to take half of the 12 seats in Kirkuk, in a major rebuff to the Kurdish alliance. Mr Allawi won only 10% of the seats in the Shia-dominated south, but this compares well with Mr Maliki’s tally of just one seat in the Sunni provinces.

Trading up

The IHEC is expected to ratify the result—having considered an array of complaints, mainly from the Maliki camp—by the end of the month. There will then be an initial period of 30 days for the MPs to agree on the appointment of a president. This could well be part of a package including a deal on the prime minister and the share-out of cabinet seats, but if these matters are not resolved, there is provision for a further 30 days of deliberations.

Both Mr Allawi and Mr Maliki are now lobbying the other main groups in an effort to build a coalition of at least 163 seats. In theory, each bloc could muster a majority through joining forces with the Islamist Shia Iraqi National Alliance (INA) and with some of the minority players. In practice, however, it would be hard to govern effectively without the main Kurdish alliance being represented in the government. The Kurds have not had an altogether happy relationship with Mr Maliki, who has prevaricated on their demand for a referendum on Kirkuk’s future and has erected obstacles in the way of the development of oilfields in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) area. Mr Allawi has also done little to endear himself to the Kurds, in particular owing to his close association the al-Nujaifi brothers—Osama (elected as an Iraqiya MP in Mosul) and Atheel (the governor of Ninewa province)—who have antagonised Kurds through their aggressive promotion of Sunni Arab interests in the north. However, Mr Allawi’s strong political position in the north—in particular his electoral gains in Kirkuk—means that the Kurds will have to deal with him in some capacity as they pursue their core objectives of resolving Kirkuk’s status and securing the central government’s blessing for their oil export plans. The Kurds have been on better terms with the INA, but this has been mainly because of the federalist stance of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), whose influence within the Shia alliance has been eroded as the fortunes of Sadrist tendency have risen.

Moqtada’s call

The Kurds are likely to wait to see which way the INA chooses to go before making their own choice between Mr Allawi and Mr Maliki. The Sadrist tendency, fiercely loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical cleric who has spent most of the past two years in Iran, is very much the dominant force in the INA, with 40 of the bloc’s total 70 seats; ISCI has only 18, with most of the remainder shared between the Islamic Virtue (Fadhila) party and independents. This puts Mr Sadr in a strong position to determine the complexion of the new government. Much will depend on how far Mr Allawi and Mr Maliki are prepared to go to accommodate his demands, with respect to both policy and cabinet representation. Mr Sadr has in the past emphasised his interest in social policy, in particular health. There should be little problem in satisfying him on this score. Things might become more complicated if he were to press for more influential posts such as minister of oil or the interior.

Sunnis on side

Mr Maliki has expressed confidence that he can in effect recreate the Shia-Kurdish coalition that was formed after the December 2005 election. However, this would entail acknowledging his failure to turn the SLA into a cross-sectarian force capable of providing an avenue for Sunni Arab participation in the political process. A coalition led by Mr Allawi, including the INA and the Kurds, would offer a better balance between Iraq’s sects and ethnic groups, and would be better placed to improve Iraq’s relations with it fellow Arab countries. Mr Maliki has quarrelled with Syria and has always been regarded with suspicion by Saudi Arabia. Mr Allawi, by contrast, has built up solid relationships with the leaders of most of the leading Arab states.

American preference?

The US has maintained an outward stance of neutrality, but there is little question that it would much prefer to see Mr Allawi in charge as it prepares to draw down its forces, to just 50,000 in August this year and with a full withdrawal by end-2011. Mr Maliki and theUS have had no option but to work together on security matters, but the relationship has never been particularly warm on either side. US officials find it much easier to communicate with Mr Allawi—not least owing to his command of English, having been based in the UK for almost 40 years—and they broadly approve of his secularist outlook and his inclusive attitude towards the Sunni Arab minority.

Iran, by contrast, is likely to be marginally in favour of Mr Maliki, as an SLA-INA-Kurdish government would have a stronger Shia bias, and would probably be less stable, offering more opportunities for Iran to exert influence over internal Iraqi affairs.

Iraqi general election result
Total Seats Baghdad South KRG + Kirkuk Sunni provinces Other (a)
Iraqi National Movement (Iraqiya) 91 24 12 6 47 2
State of Law Alliance 89 26 60 1 2
Iraqi National Alliance 70 17 47 4 2
Kurdish Alliance 43 33 9 1
Goran 8 8
Unity 4 4
Tawafuq 6 1 5
Kurdish Islamic Union 4 4
Kurdish Islamic Group 2 2
Minorities 8 8
325 68 119 53 70 15
(a) Top-ups and minorities
Source: The Independent High Electoral Commission.