Iraq’s political stalemate: Democracy’s endgame?

Reid Smith Contributor
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Iraq’s Political Stalemate: Democracy’s Endgame?

It’s been over 10 days since Iraqis braved rockets attacks, suicide bombs and mortars lobbed at random to choose from more than 6,000 candidates competing for the country’s 325-seat Parliament. Still, the results are not final.

The violence that marred this election wasn’t the only manifestation of Iraq’s democratic growing pains. The people of Iraq have since suffered an excruciating delay as each of the 12 million votes cast must be counted and verified by two separate election officials before the ballot is officially recognized.

The endless aftermath of this election represents another major hurdle for a country where sectarian violence lurks just below the façade of democratic progress.

With 80 percent of the vote tallied, the coalition headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has taken a narrow lead over his successor and chief political rival, Nouri al-Maliki. These results are subject to change as the final provincial votes trickle in and the results from refugee voters outside of Iraq and those of the Iraqi security forces are announced. Complete returns will be published in the next few days and the final counts will be known by the end of the month—only after the inevitable avalanche of complaints has been investigated.

What follows is anyone’s guess. However, one can safely assume that “anyone’s guess” would have to include months of political horse-trading, hard bargaining and some old-fashioned political graft as the new government takes shape.

To put this in perspective, with the final tally to be declared on Friday, the competing coalitions of al-Maliki and Allawi are both set to gain 87 seats. For the citizens of Iraqi, these elections have produced the most unsatisfying of endgame results: constitutional stalemate.

Many analysts have rushed to extol the success of these elections in Middle East’s newest and largest democracy. Others have criticized the sustained violence that tarnished results with slapdash car-bombings and targeted political assassinations. Now, with only a few thousand votes separating the incumbent’s State of Law coalition from the challenger’s Iraqiya National Movement, international commentators are celebrating a result once unimaginable in a state long dominated by the iron-fist of the Ba’ath party.

In his Tuesday column, the WaPo’s esteemed columnist and Middle East expert, David Ignatius, made the assertion that “the best thing about Sunday’s election, judging from the early results, is that no party won so big that it can form a government on its own…this will be democracy Iraq-style, something closer to a day spent haggling in the souk than a visit to the Lincoln Memorial.” Ignatius did concede that the vote’s photo-finish could provoke a new wave of violence across Iraq as domestic politicking stalls the complicated formula used to assign parliamentary seats.

We’re all anxious for good news from Iraq. After seven years and a terrible price in blood and treasure it’s certainly reasonable that any democracy may be viewed as good democracy. However, given the stakes in Iraq, it would be shortsighted to wish upon a draw.

Put frankly, Iraq needed an election that produced clear winners and losers. Its government is simply too fragile to suffer the withering strain of political deadlock. Despite an increase in Sunni participation since the last parliamentary election, results fell along the inevitable schisms of ethnic and sectarian identity.

Meanwhile, as national heavyweights Maliki and Allawi duke it out for Iraq’s premiership, followers of firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who led a high-profile Shi’a insurgency against the American occupation, have emerged as political kingmakers. Both allies and adversaries believe that the Sadrists will seize at least forty seats in the new parliament, which would carry the populist movement to a clear majority in the Iraqi National Alliance. This Shi’a coalition, that once bore al-Maliki to the Prime Minister’s office, may now attempt to recast itself as a stubborn obstacle to their erstwhile party boss’s incumbency.

If this is the case, then Sadr’s hand will rock the cradle of this nascent democracy from his exile in Iran, with former Pentagon-favorite Ahmed Chalabi side-kicking as his éminence grise. For American interests in Iraq, this development is alarming. The Sadrists have refused any meaningful contact with our military and diplomats since 2003, so a political revival is unlikely to soften their stance as U.S. combat troops prepare to leave over the next year.

At this rate, just forming a government from a coalition of willing parties will prove difficult. Major doubts surrounding the resource-rich city of Kirkuk, draft oil legislation and the indomitable Kurdish question, remain. Iraq’s civil institutions may not be strong enough to thumb the dike as sectarian groups defend their interests in a political vacuum.

Unfortunately, a “stalemate” isn’t just a lousy end to a chess match—it’s a no-win situation for all parties involved. And that kind of deadlock seems to be shaping up in Iraq. With that said, whatever government emerges would do well to remember that it is solely the product of an Iraqi electorate that confronted mortal danger to affirm its faith in democracy.

Let’s hope the people of Iraq get the government they deserve.

Reid Smith has worked as a research associate specializing on U.S. policy in the Middle East and as a political speechwriter. His graduate work at American University’s School of International Service was focused on the politics of Shi’a majority in Iraq.