BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraqi lawmakers agreed just minutes before a midnight deadline on an election law Sunday, paving the way for parliamentary elections in February after months of political wrangling that laid bare Iraq’s sectarian politics beneath the veneer of democracy.
Political players said it was an evening phone call from United States President Barack Obama to Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, that broke the deadlock over the deal hammered out on the edges of parliament with the help of increasingly anxious U.S. and United Nations diplomats.
The last two months of election wrangling might have seemed at times the political equivalent of a broadway musical — full of twists and turns with at least a temporarily happy ending.
After weeks of delay that appeared aimed at keeping an election system in which voters could vote for parties but not individual candidates, parliament passed an election law almost a month ago adopting a more open system.
Barely before the celebration had died down, the law was vetoed by Iraq’s Sunni vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, who said it disenfranchised several million Iraqis living outside the country — one of the major Sunni constituencies.
The Kurds, who had been focused on the side issue of Kirkuk during the election debate, belatedly looked at the seat distribution provided by election officials and realized that while Sunni and Shiite had gained seats because of a population increase, the Kurds had not.
“Hashemi’s move was a Godsend,” said a senior Kurdish official. The veto reopened the entire law for renegotiation, pushing the Kurds and Shiites together to lobby for more seats, ultimately at the expense of the Sunnis.
Sunday’s compromise allows ballots of voters outside the country, many originally from Sunni strongholds in Baghdad, Diyala Province and Mosul, to be counted in their home districts. The move ensures that those ballots won’t be wasted and maintains Hashemi's own political capital in the Iraqi expatriate community.
It also redistributed seats to give the Kurds three more than under the original election law — fewer than they had been seeking but enough to remove the threat of a boycott.
“Everybody got something out of it — I think there’s more consensus on this law than there was on the first law,” said Krikor Derhagopian, an advisor to Hashemi. He said the most likely date for the elections would be Feb. 27 — more than a month later than the January date the U.S. and the U.N. had been pressing for but still within the constitutional guidelines.
If passing the election law looked difficult though, what comes next will make it apparent that that was the easy part.
“Everything is at stake in this election,” said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group. The fundamental political issues meant to be addressed by the breathing space created by the drop in violence here have not been addressed — just deferred.
“The military part worked but the political part just wasn’t done because the Bush administration didn’t pay attention or didn’t care or didn’t understand or didn’t expend the political capitol,” he said. “The results are that now we have to address these issues. OK, the current parliament cannot do it so everybody is waiting for the new parliament and the new leadership and the new government to do it.”
Around the bargaining table on the sidelines of parliament were a collection of Kurdish officials, Turkmen, Sunni nationalists — and the former head of the feared Shiite militia the Badr Corps. U.S. and U.N. diplomats shuttled back and forth between committee rooms.
For the U.S., an extended political vacuum in Iraq would be a nightmare. With no one faction strong enough to form a government by itself, a governing coalition is expected to be drawn after the election results are in. It could take several months to form a government at the very time that the U.S. is withdrawing combat forces in line with Obama’s pullout plan.
U.S. military officials are already fretting about whether there will be a firm hand on Iraqi security forces during the transition between the old and new governments.
Among the issues to be decided in parliament next year are the fundamental building blocks of a country. The Iraqi Constitution pushed through by the U.S. in 2005 with key issues left intentionally vague was meant to be reviewed and entrenched by the first Iraqi parliament in six months.
Instead, key provisions, such as the future of Kirkuk, are still up in the air.
“The problem is every group interprets the constitution a different way,” said a senior Iraqi official. “Democracy can work but it takes a lot more time than this.”