Iraq’s Election Picture Shapes Up: Stalemates and the Road to Power

Iraqiya, State of Law Have Difficult Paths to Coalition Rule

Though the final count will not be submitted until the end of the month (and even then its certification could be held up by allegations of fraud) the Independent High Electoral Commission’s issuing of daily updates to the vote count has solidified a somewhat clear picture of how the seats will be distributed.

Both Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya and the Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law blocs are projected to have roughly 90 seats, the Iraqi National Alliance 65-70, and the Kurdish ruling bloc just under 40. The Unity Alliance and what remains of the Iraqi Accord Front look to gain about 9-10 seats each, as does the Gorran opposition party from Kurdistan. Eight seats will go to the various religious minorities in the nation, and various other factions may net a seat or two here or there.

With 83% of the vote in, the numbers are not set in stone, and a swing of 1-2 seats one way or another could have a profound impact on the various blocs’ ability to form a coalition government. Still, with Iraqiya and State of Law securing more than half of the seats between them, the only path to a coalition government must inevitably go through one of them.

Possibility One: The State of Law Government

State of Law was widely expected to emerge as the winner of this election, with incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hoping to cling to power after losing most of his alliance in the August split of the United Iraqi Alliance. His path to power will depend largely on courting the opposition group which arose from that splintering, the Iraqi National Alliance.

But the INA is not the same bloc it was in 2005, or even the same bloc it was in February. The dominant Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) is now a mere shadow of its former self, and the INA’s seats will be dominated by the supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. While the SIIC and some of the other minor INA factions would tend to be sympathetic to Maliki, if for no other reason than to stop the secularist Iraqiya, the Sadr bloc’s traditional animosity to Maliki could make pulling the whole bloc into a coalition extreme difficult.

Bringing Sadr into the coalition would not be impossible for State of Law, but it would likely come at the expense of Maliki holding his position. Offering up the Prime Ministership to Jawad al-Bolani could be the best compromise solution, and might even allow State of Law to cut the Kurds out entirely in favor of an all Shi’ite government.

On the plus side, Maliki does have a relatively easy path to alliance with the Kurdish bloc. Reeling from its loss of electoral success in the regions bordering Kurdistan to Iraqiya, the Kurdistani Alliance’s hopes of annexing those territories into Kurdistan’s semi-autonomous region would be impossible if Iraqiya forms the next government. Their size isn’t what it once was and they can’t play kingmaker as in 2005, but the closeness of the race likely keeps their bargaining position relatively strong.

Possibility Two: Iraqiya Government

Ayad Allawi’s triumphant return to political relevance in Iraq is one thing, but forming a coalition government is going to be an enormous task for the once and would-be future prime minister.

The problem is that while Iraqiya may end up with a seat or two more than State of Law, they don’t have nearly the number of natural allies to form a coalition with. The Kurdistani Alliance would almost certainly balk at joining forces with Allawi after his Sunni allies stripped them of so many seats in Kirkuk and elsewhere, and the most religious portions of the Iraqi National Alliance would likely prefer to avoid a government sure to have so many Sunnis in key positions.

The only practical path to power is if State of Law is determined to hold Maliki up as Prime Minister, giving Allawi a chance to split the INA in twain and court the Sadr bloc. Sadr’s ever-present nationalist tendencies and dislike of Maliki might trump any concerns his followers have about a secular government.

Even then, Iraqiya would need the Sadrists, the Unity Alliance and the IAF, Gorran (a politically risky move for the nascent Kurdish opposition, but one which would give them a path to relevance), and the religious minority factions. Some of those would be easy sells, but many would not.

The real long-shot is the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi. The party certainly made enemies of Iraqiya when Chalabi used his influence to ban large chunks of Iraqiya’s Sunni bloc, but when every vote counts Allawi may not be able to be choosy about partners. Chalabi’s long history as a political opportunist means he’s a possible partner in any coalition government, no matter how seemingly opposed to his position at any given time.

Possibility Three: Deadlock

Though it is virtually a metaphysical certainty that the fight to form these coalitions is going to take many, many months, and there doesn’t appear to be a formal deadline as such, there is no guarantee that either bloc will be able to cobble together 163 seats to form a coalition government.

What this means in the near term is that Prime Minister Maliki will be running a caretaker government, with authority to pay its employees but little else. Iraq’s government policy will be, in essence, frozen in time to the day of the election’s certification, with no new laws and no new contracts being possible.

Which means that at the end of the day, if neither bloc is able to form a coalition government (which at the moment perhaps looks the most likely of all scenarios) Iraq could face something which is always a risk in parliamentary systems: an indecisive result forcing another new election, with the hope that the intervening time has given one faction or another some political advantage that could be exploited to make for a more conclusive finish.

All this however will come at a major price for the US forces that were hoping to use the election as a stabilizing event to facilitate a drawdown. Pledges to halve the troops in the nation by August already seem unlikely, but a long delay and even another election could leave the US forces stuck in the middle of yet another political battle with no end in sight.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.