It was an upset win: Ayad Allawi’s slate beat out Nouri al Maliki’s by two seats. As recently as a month ago, very few would have predicted such an outcome.
The immediate consequence of such an upset is to deny Maliki the certain opportunity to gain a second term as prime minister. There are many reasons for this upset, some of which will be touched on below. It is clear that prior to the election, Maliki had alienated too many political players—notably the Kurds and his former Shia allies in the United Iraqi Alliance—by his heavy-handed tendencies, which attempted to bring too many powers under his control and that of the Da’awa Party which he heads. His actions had alerted the Iraqi political class that another term would mean a more centralized and entrenched government in which Maliki was prepared to go his own way, without deferring to consensus and deal-making among disparate groups.
Maliki’s best chance at forming a government was to attain the highest number of seats: an outcome that would have given him the legitimacy to demand the right to form a new cabinet based on popular will. By Articles 54, 55, 70, and 74 of Iraq’s constitution, the current president of the republic calls the new parliament into session, which then proceeds to elect a speaker and two deputies, who orchestrate the election of a new president by a two-thirds majority. The new president then has 15 days to task “the largest parliamentary bloc” to form a government. Such a government must then pass a simple majority vote within 30 days of the presidential directive.
Immediately following the election, attempts were made to establish what the phrase “the largest parliamentary bloc” actually means. The Higher Federal Court was asked to define the phrase, and in a ruling published on March 25, the judges decreed that it was capable of two interpretations: either (1), the slate that earned the largest number of votes prior to the election; or ( 2), the parliamentary bloc that is formed between two or more winning slates after parliament is called into session. Maliki had bet that he could circumvent this elastic definition by claiming that as head of the largest slate in parliament, he was expected by the voters to be allowed a first crack at putting together a coalition that would ensure a simple majority. The election result, with Allawi coming out on top, has denied Maliki this opportunity.
In the two weeks running up to the election, it was clear that the Sunni Arab vote had coalesced around Allawi’s slate, which was perceived as the strongest and most competitive slate among a series of other credible slates with high Sunni representation, such as the slate of Minister of Interior Jawad al Bolani. Why the Sunni Arab vote went largely for Allawi will be debated for a long time, but the following factors likely played a decisive role.
First, the de-Ba’athification of several prominent Sunni leaders who had allied with Allawi probably created the impression among Sunnis that the predominately Shia slates, notably the Iraqi National Alliance that ran on an anti-Ba’athist agenda, had specifically targeted Allawi’s slate, marking it as the one the Shia Islamist parties felt most threatened by. Furthermore, Allawi’s Sunni allies were, by deed and rhetoric, the most uncompromising and radical proponents of core Sunni issues such as the repeal of de-Ba’athification and federalism, and rolling back Kurdish autonomy in disputed areas such as Mosul, Diyala, and Kirkuk. Hence the Sunni vote oriented itself in a sectarian manner toward Allawi, opting for the least palatable Sunni politicians in the opinion of Shias and Kurds.
Bolani’s slate featured many prominent Sunnis, notably Ahmad Abu Risha of the Anbar Awakening, as well as others such as former parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani and the Sunni religious figure Ahmad al-Samara’i. But their approach was perceived as conciliatory and moderate toward Shias and Kurds, and they seem to have been roundly rejected by Sunni voters, earning a total of four seats in Sunni provinces (one in Anbar, one in Mosul, and two in Salahuddin); these four MPs are likely to join Allawi’s bloc, giving him a six-seat advantage over Maliki. It is worth noting that Bolani, a Shia, failed to win a seat for himself in Baghdad.
Allawi’s performance among Shia voters was the biggest surprise. Even though his slate had a distinctly Sunni flavor, the majority proportion of Shias who had voted for him in the 2005 election seem to have cast their votes for his candidates again. Allawi picked up 12 seats in predominately Shia provinces, and as many as eight seats from the Shia vote in Baghdad. These were probably voters who were fed up with the Shia Islamist parties, and who had decided to bandwagon with a secular slate that seemed best poised to challenge the Islamist stranglehold on power.
But it would be a mistake to assume that the Shia secular vote all went to Allawi; anecdotal evidence suggests that a very large proportion of that vote went to Maliki, who had successfully recast himself in the Shia public imagination as a secular candidate, even though he heads an Islamist party.
For all of his complaining about election fraud, Maliki’s remaining wild card if he wants to come out on top is to activate the last batch of 55 de-Ba’athified candidates that the Accountability and Justice Commission (AJC) had sent to the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) prior to the elections. Most of the names on this list were replacements for the earlier waves of de-Ba’athified candidates, and a large number of them are members of Allawi’s slate. IHEC had not acted on them, deferring a decision until after the election. These candidates are not sworn in as Members of Parliament yet, and consequently do not have parliamentary immunity against the AJC’s rulings. By IHEC’s own rules, the votes earned by these de-Ba’athified candidates would be nullified completely, hence votes cast for individuals would not revert to the slate. Allawi stands to lose tens of thousands of votes this way, with notable candidates of his in the provinces of Babil and Karbala getting disqualified. Since Allawi only squeaked by in these southern provinces, it is unlikely that a disqualified candidate’s number of votes would be compensated by the slate’s overall performance; this would mean that Allawi loses a net total of seats, bringing him a notch below Maliki, who stands to have his own candidates pick up those vacated seats.
Whichever way one cuts it, it won’t be enough for Maliki or Allawi to ally with the largest Kurdish bloc and proceed to form a government. The breakdown of the numbers means that in order to reach the magic number of 163 ‘yes’ votes needed on the parliamentary floor to form a cabinet, Maliki or Allawi would have to either coalesce together, or get the INA, or a component of the INA (for example, the Sadrists), to pass the threshold. There are only 32 votes outside the four main blocs (Allawi with 91, Maliki with 89, INA with 70, and the Kurdish Alliance with 43). Of these 32 votes, 14 belong to a variety of Kurdish slates, 10 to Sunni Arab candidates, and another 8 to minorities (5 for two Christian slates). The variety of these MPs and their myriad agendas are impossible to reconcile; they cannot be won over as a bloc for the purpose of a simple majority.
It is also inconceivable at this stage that Allawi and Maliki would work together, which would be the most logical thing to do given how similar their agendas are regarding going soft on Ba’athists, more centralization, and freezing out the Kurds, the Hakims, and the Sadrists. But two very inflated egos are at play here, and it is unlikely that one would defer to the other and give up the limelight. They both understand that they derive their appeal from having been on top of the executive branch, and failing to reprise that role would mean a slow yet ultimate political death for one or the other.
This leaves Allawi and Maliki not only kowtowing to the hesitant Kurds, but also to their adversaries in the INA. Allawi’s most significant ally, who can sway 20 seats his way, is a politician in Mosul who ran on an anti-Kurdish agenda; while Maliki has demonstrated to the Kurds that he is intent on existentially curtailing their authority as a federal entity. The largest bloc within the INA are the Sadrists. Even though their candidates earned a little over 600,000 votes in all of Iraq (compare that to the approximately 580,000 voters in Baghdad alone who chose Maliki by name), and didn’t manage to earn more than 40 percent of the INA’s overall votes in any province, including their strongholds in Baghdad and Maysan, they still received the largest seat allocation within the INA. This was due to a shrewd and organized distribution of votes among their candidates (only two of their 45 competitive candidates passed the vote threshold on their own without needing compensation votes from the rest of the INA slate). Because both Allawi and Maliki have cultivated their ‘strongman’ allure by smashing the Sadrists, any political marriage of convenience with the Sadrists would be very hard to pull off given those memories. Not only that, but both politicians stand to disappoint the constituencies that voted for them if they embrace the Sadrists.
Both Allawi and Maliki may momentarily revel in the fact that they earned the largest numbers of votes, but the mathematical reality of the new parliament most likely means that neither of them will be able to form a government. It may take several months for this reality to set in, during which the pair will fight tooth and nail to reclaim the mantle of premiership, to no avail.