Election delays could increase violence in Iraq

It’s been two weeks since the election in Iraq. Optimists hoped it would be a significant step toward forming a reasonably stable democracy that would at least be able to govern itself fairly peacefully.

A final vote tally is still not available, but two things seem certain.

It will probably take months for a governing coalition to emerge with enough parliamentary power to name a prime minister. And Iraq’s sectarian divides have re-emerged — if anything, more bitterly than before.

Iraq has a parliamentary system rather than electing a president separately. With dozens of parties and 6,000 candidates vying for 325 seats, it was unlikely that any faction would emerge with a clear majority. Thus jockeying and horse-trading to form a governing coalition was inevitable.

The two leading candidates, current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the former interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, are both Shia Muslims (as are about 60 percent of Iraqis). They cast themselves as secular nationalists who could appeal across sectarian lines. However, their appeal turned out to be largely sectarian.

Maliki’s faction seems poised (subject to change) to capture 90-100 seats, while Allawi’s could gain 85 or so. Far from appealing across sectarian lines, however, Maliki drew votes largely from Shia areas, while Allawi became the de facto choice of most Sunni. Either would have to form alliances, probably with Kurdish parties, to form a government.

There were two big surprises. The party of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militias fought fiercely against the Americans in 2004, could win about 35 seats. And the Anbar Awakening, the group led by Sunni sheiks that turned against al-Qaida in Iraq in 2007, garnered few votes.

The fear is that a period of instability will lead to violence, which could increase the already considerable influence of Iran. Americans can do little but watch and hope.