Analysis: Iraq's political chess game

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The official results of Iraq’s election could be months away, but there is a lot riding on what happens in the coming weeks as the vote tallies seep out and the still pooling allegations of fraud are investigated.

At the end of the day, this vote must be acceptable to all the stakeholders to ensure Iraq’s fragile stability. A collective faith in this electoral process is essential to a planned U.S. withdrawal later this year.

So far, the preliminary vote tallies for the major coalitions — Nouri al Maliki’s State of Law Party, and his more secular rival, Iyad Allawi, head of the Iraqiya bloc — are close. Already, allegations of fraud are flying, including reports of thousands of ballots dumped in garbage bins. The top United Nations envoy in Baghdad, Ad Melkert, quickly disputed the charges of widespread fraud while dispatching almost a hundred lawyers to investigate complaints. The corruption charges could be sour grapes from Iraqi politicians surprised by a poor showing, but the massive U.N. effort is an indication of the concerns ahead.

No one party or coalition is expected to win more than half of the 325 seats in parliament. Iraqi politicians are already working around the clock, bargaining to form wider alliances and shape a ruling coalition. The bargains and deals are a spectator sport across the country as Iraqis debate the calculations of Iraq’s permanent political class. The next government will be determined by negotiations as complicated as three-dimensional chess and as ruthless as musical chairs. This could take weeks or months and there are still many surprises ahead.

Social networking online has apparently even become part of this game. In a Twitter feed, Kurdish leader Barham Salih, a very experienced player on the Iraqi political stage and a politician who now serves as the head of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, described how Vice President Abdel Abdul Mahdi and Alawi were making visits to his region and ended the tweet this way: “Politics is getting more interesting!”

The Obama administration was quick to hail the vote as a success, an example of Iraq’s embrace of democracy and a settling of grievances through a democratic process. Despite at least 36 deaths and voting day violence intended to intimidate, the turn out was about 62 percent, which is worthy of praise.

However, the details of voting patterns paint a more complex picture. While the country has come a long way since the dark days of 2006, when disputes over political power were settled in street battles and by death squads, voting on March 7, 2010, was strictly along sectarian lines.

Traumatized by Saddam and torn into sectarian fragments by a U.S. invasion and occupation, Iraqis have yet to agree on a shared national narrative. Iraqis say they are fed up with sectarianism, a conflict that has divided neighborhoods and families, but in the voting booth, they displayed deeply held divisions. An Iraqi election turns out to be little more than a census in a vote that is institutionalizing majority rule. In Iraq, the Shiites have the most voters and therefore make the rules.

The Sunni community, an aggrieved minority since the fall of Saddam, stayed home in large numbers in the 2005 elections. In a way, this was their first national election and the participation was high. In the predominantly Sunni provinces of Anbar and Salahuddin more than 70 percent turned out to vote. So far, the Shiite-dominated government has done little to integrate Sunnis into the new Iraq. In the run up to the vote, a Shiite-controlled official body banned more than 500 candidates, many of them Sunnis, on vague charges of links to the outlawed Baath Party. This stirred fears in the larger Sunni community that the real motive was to marginalize them politically. Sunnis are watching the returns with a wary eye. For the most part, they backed Allawi, the secular Shiite who built his coalition with Sunni partners and in the "open list system" Sunnis could vote for Sunni candidates in his coalition.

"The Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile and the Upheaval of the Middle East" by Deborah Amos. 

But what will Sunnis get out of this large turnout? Political reconciliation can only happen if Sunnis believe they have a fair share of power. How will they react if there is no change in status when the votes are counted and a prime minister is in place?

There is another group of Iraqis with a keen interest in the election outcome, the large population of exiles who wait uneasily across Iraq’s borders and across the globe. Despite an overall reduction in violence in Iraq, few of the 2 million Iraqis who fled the country between 2004 and 2007 have returned. An estimated 60 percent of the refugees are Sunni Arabs while approximately 15 percent are Iraqi Christians. Their departure represents a dramatic demographic shift in Iraq. In this election, they demonstrated a keen interest in the future direction of the country. More than 250,000 exiles turned out to vote in 16 countries. The highest numbers of Iraqi voters showed up to cast ballots in Syria, Sweden, the U. S., Jordan and Iran. These exiles will judge the election by what it reveals about the strength of the sectarian fault lines that contributed to the exodus and displacement of 20 percent of the prewar population. The outcome could determine whether they stay in exile, a destabilizing population in neighboring countries, or return home.

Pre-election violence in Mosul that targeted the remaining Christian community depressed the vote there and dismayed the exile community. A young Christian woman blogged her despair on voting day: “We are just tired from living in horror … I wonder if my relatives from abroad will come back? That all depends on what happens in Baghdad.”

Deborah Amos is an editor-at-large for GlobalPost. She is currently a Goldsmith Fellow at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. She covers Iraq for NPR News and is the author of a newly published book, "The Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile and the Upheaval of the Middle East."