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Analysis: Defining "Iraqracy"

To become Iraq's PM, Iyad Allawi must build a coalition and convince others he is willing to share power.

Pictures of premier-elect Iyad Allawi, bottom, and outgoing premier Nouri al-Maliki are seen on the front page of an Iraqi newspaper in Baghdad on March 27, 2010. (Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Iraq's dramatic election was a prelude to the real test: the political wrangling to determine the country's next prime minister.

This is the way it goes in “Iraqracy,” as Gen. David Petraeus dubbed the county’s unique political system. In the weeks to come, Iraq’s flaws, strengths and identity will be revealed as the country’s fragile rule of law is strained, perhaps to the breaking point, to determine the outcome of the vote.

U.S. headlines have focused on the triumph of Iyad Allawi’s coalition, a political bloc of nationalist Sunnis and secular Shiites, with a former CIA asset as head of the party. But Allawi’s win in the March 7 election does not guarantee that he can govern Iraq or return as prime minister, a job he held in 2004-2005.

In fact, Allawi won only a slim plurality in the elections. His coalition won 91 seats in the National Assembly, two more than the second place winner, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. The magic number needed to form a ruling coalition is 163. The numbers show that Allawi must convince 72 winners from other parties to join his coalition while Maliki must woo 74 allies.

Both political leaders are in an uphill struggle to form a ruling coalition, but even these numbers are not a sure thing. Iraq’s judiciary has already taken steps that could change the outcome.

Stung by his loss, Maliki rejected the official tally and invoked his status as commander-in-chief as he warned of violence. Maliki’s top aide, Ali al-Adeed, was more explicit when he said Iraq’s Shiites would not accept the legitimacy of Allawi’s victory. Maliki’s warnings prompted an unusual on-the-record observation from a senior U.S. embassy official, Gary Grappo, who acknowledged that Maliki’s coalition would “take advantage of all means at their disposal to try to eke out a victory.”

While Grappo went on to express confidence that Maliki and his allies would work within the judicial system, the system has been far from neutral, both before and after the election. Power in Iraq centers around personalities rather than institutions. As long as Maliki remains in office, he can manipulate government resources to press his advantage.

On the day before the election results were announced, the Supreme Court interpreted an ambiguous constitutional clause in a way that gives Maliki an edge. While the constitution stipulates the largest bloc in parliament gets the first chance to form a government, it is unclear whether the largest bloc is determined by the vote or groups that merge after the election. The judges ruled that the later is permissible, which means if Maliki can convince smaller blocs to join him in the next few days, he can deny Allawi the first shot at forming a government.