(Via Al Jazeera / Flickr.)

“You win some, you lose some. And then there’s that little-known third category…”
— Al Gore, on the 2000 U.S. presidential election

A couple of days ago, while awaiting the final results from Iraq’s parliamentary elections, Marc Lynch (a/k/a Abu Aardvark) wrote that the country “faces a double-edged test”:

If al-Maliki triumphs in a narrow election and assembles a coalition that largely reproduces the outgoing government, many Iraqis may feel that the election was a sham, and that democracy is not capable of producing true change. If al-Maliki loses, he may not surrender power without a fight

Or, you know, both could happen.  From the New York Times this morning:

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s party lost the Iraqi election, but a day after the results were announced it became clear that he would fight to hold on to his post — even before the outcome was declared.

On Thursday, a day before the results were announced, he quietly persuaded the Iraqi supreme court to issue a ruling that potentially allows him to choose the new government instead of awarding that right to the winner of the election, the former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi.

On another front, officials in charge of purging the government of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party said Saturday that they still expected to disqualify 50 political candidates, many of them members of Mr. Allawi’s Iraqiya Party. That could strip Mr. Allawi of his narrow plurality, 91 parliamentary seats compared with 89 for Mr. Maliki’s State of Law party.

And if all that does not work, the prime minister still is clamoring for a recount. . . . Ultimately, the same Supreme Federal Court, which is nominally independent but has proved friendly to Mr. Maliki in the past, will decide the recount issue.

Yes, it’s always nice to have a friendly Supreme Court in your back pocket in case of a close election, isn’t it?

The relevance of the court’s decision is that under the Iraqi constitution, the electoral coalition with the largest number of seats in parliament gets the first chance to form a government, including choosing a prime minister.  But because although Allawi’s slate came in first in the voting, the court ruled that a coalition formed after the election would be eligible — meaning that Maliki’s party and the bloc of Shiite religious parties (who came in second and third, respectively) could unite and thereby “win” the right to stay in power.

As a result, a coalition like the one I predicted two weeks ago is still the most likely outcome: Maliki’s “State of Law” bloc (unfortunate acronym and all), his off-and-on Shiite allies (including those loyal to U.S. bogeyman-cleric Moqtada as-Sadr), and the largest Kurdish parties, creating a near-reunion of the 2005 government.

Why?  Because despite ordinary Iraqis’ unhappiness with the incumbent regime’s corruption and ineptitude, the high-level fault lines that brought about the Shiite-Kurdish alliance — in particular, the desire to remove any trace of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Baath party from the government and especially the military — still exist.

In 2005, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani oversaw the creation of a nearly all-Shiite electoral slate in order to ensure that Iraq’s majority sect would control the country’s post-Saddam future.  Even if just enough voters in Iraq’s predominantly Shiite regions rejected that sectarian strategy (either by staying home or defecting to Allawi’s coalition) to tip this month’s election results, Sistani is not likely to accept such a swift unraveling of his master plan — and his will is unlikely to be defied by the politicians he brought to power, especially for the sake of a minority role in an Allawi-led regime.

Similarly, as Juan Cole notes this morning, an alliance between Allawi and the Kurdish factions is implausible because of the battles for influence between Kurds and the Sunni Arabs who make up Allawi’s political base in Kirkuk and other parts of northern Iraq.  As Cole concludes, “Allawi may therefore have a plurality that is incapable of growing into a majority.”

The primary impact of Prime Minister al-Maliki’s surprising (if narrow) second-place finish, if anything, is likely to be felt by Maliki himself.  Even if Team Shiite reunites as I’ve been predicting, Maliki’s rivals in the religious parties may demand his scalp as the price for patching up the assorted feuds of the last four years.  But that would put all of the factions in the troublesome position of having to agree on a successor, meaning even more wrangling before a government can be formed.

But then, given the congested and inconclusive results of the election, I suppose that would be fitting.



Swopa has been sharing prescient, if somewhat anal-retentive, analysis and garden-variety mockery with Internet readers since 1995 or so, when he began debunking the fantasies of Clinton-scandal aficionados on Usenet. He is currently esconced as the primary poster at Needlenose (www.needlenose.com).