Although Iraq's second parliamentary elections since the US-led invasion represent a milestone, they will neither resolve the country's existential crisis nor bring it closer to genuine democracy. Results released by the inept Independent High Electoral Commission show little change in political attitudes and loyalties. On the whole, Iraqis did not vote according to party or ideology. Sect, ethnicity, and tribe trumpeted other loyalties, including the nation.
For the foreseeable future, Iraqi politics will be toxically fragmented along sectarian, ethnic, and personality lines, though fear of all-out civil war is unwarranted. A week after the balloting, prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition and the cross-sectarian Iraqiya coalition, headed by ex-premier Iyad Allawi, were projected to win roughly the same number of seats – about 87 each – in Iraq's 325-member parliament.
The Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a grouping of Shia religious parties closely linked to Iran, is set to come a close third with 67 seats, while the powerful main Kurdistan alliance of President Jalal Barzani and Massoud Talabani led as expected in Erbil, the autonomous Kurdish region, with 38.
Far from a triumph for democracy, the results threaten to plunge Iraq into a constitutional and leadership vacuum. With Maliki and his main rival, Allawi, falling short of the 163 seats needed to govern alone, they will probably need to ally with one or two blocs to form a coalition government – a complicated negotiating process fraught with security risks and that might last months, putting sectarian leaders back in the driving seat.
After the last parliamentary poll in 2005, sectarian violence erupted as political leaders clashed for more than five months in an effort to form a government. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, plunging the country to the brink of all-out civil war.
Although the security situation has improved today, the next few weeks will test Iraq's fragile institutions to breaking point. Unless Iraqi political leaders build a reformist, cross-sectarian government, they could squander precious security gains made over the last three years.
Early signs are not reassuring. A stream of fraud allegations by the two leading blocs risks delegitimising the whole electoral process. As his coalition's lead slipped, Maliki called for a recount, accusing election officials of doctoring tallies in some of the country's 50,000 polling stations – a serious charge. Likewise, Allawi made fraud allegations when the count showed him trailing behind Maliki.
On the face of it, the fierce electoral struggle bodes well for transition to democracy. But the reality is much more complex and alarming, as sectarianism is deeply entrenched in the body politic.
For example, Allawi – a secular Shia – has drawn heavily on Sunni support in central and western Iraq, appealing to Sunni Arab voters who are frustrated with their own incompetent religious leaders while attracted to Allawi's non-sectarian and anti-Iran stance.
In contrast, few Sunni Arabs voted for Maliki, a Shia, who failed to finish in the top three in all but one of Iraq's Sunni-majority provinces. That in itself speaks volumes about the polarisation of Iraq seven years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime. Sensing public dissatisfaction with sectarian-religious parties, Maliki recast himself as a non-sectarian nationalist who has brought law and order to the war-torn country.
Maliki's gamble did not fully pay off. Resenting his decision to ban hundreds of mostly Sunni candidates suspected of links to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party, many Sunnis are unconvinced that the prime minister has shed his sectarian inheritance and consider al-Dawa, a Shia-based organisation, the driver behind the State of Law coalition. Others are suspicious of his continued, if reduced, ties to Iran.
While the results indicate that conservative sectarian-based parties like the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) did very poorly, the radical Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, and his supporters are the big winners. Defying predictions that they were a spent force after suffering repeated military setbacks, the Sadrists are expected to win more than 40 seats. That would be roughly the same size as the Kurdish bloc, making it a potent Shia rival of Maliki.
The Sadrists' spectacular gains complicate the effort to cobble together a governing coalition. They are bitter enemies of Maliki, who in 2008 sent the army to Basra and Baghdad and put down a challenge by Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. Sadr, who lives in Iran and has close ties with the Iranian regime, has spearheaded resistance to the US military presence among Iraqi Shias. His victory is welcome news to the Iranian regime.
With the exception of Allawi's secularist, cross-sectarian alliance, the balance of power favours sectarian orientation cloaked in various disguises. In the end, Maliki will probably try to form a government composed of some of his estranged former Shia partners and current Kurdish allies – a move likely to alienate Sunni Arabs who, for the first time, voted in large numbers .
Regardless of which blocs form the new government, the US and Iran will be Iraq's two most influential external players. As Maliki often states, Iran will still be there after the Americans leave, but the election results mean the Iranian regime will be unable to call the shots. The new coalition government in Baghdad, whether led by Maliki or Allawi, will seek to maintain good relations withboth Iran and the US, and will try and avoid putting all its eggs in one basket. Despite their previous criticism of US interference, Maliki and Allawi view the relationship with the US as critical to maintaining stability and peace in the short term.
By honouring its commitment to withdraw American troops from Iraq, the Obama administration will begin the process of repairing the damage done by its predecessor and building a new relationship based on mutual interests, not domination. Iraqis must take ownership of their country, security and their future.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Fawaz A. Gerges. This article first appeared in the Guardian.
Fawaz Gerges is a professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations.