Last updated: March 27, 2010 10:29 am

Allawi coalition has narrow win in Iraqi poll

A secular coalition led by Iyad Allawi narrowly won the most seats in this month’s Iraq parliamentary elections, according to results released Friday night. The announcement has set the stage for the potentially rare dismissal of an Arab leader at the polls.

The results mark a remarkable turnaround for Mr Allawi, who served as prime minister in 2004 in the wake of the US-led war to oust Saddam Hussein, and a blow to Nouri -al-Maliki, the current prime minister.

According to full preliminary results, Mr Allawi and his Iraqiya list won 91 seats, compared with 89 for Mr Maliki’s State of Law bloc.

The concern will be that closeness of the contest, which has been tarnished by allegations of fraud, could raise tensions in the fragile country. Two bombs in the volatile Diyala province killed more than 20 people shortly before the results were announced.

A disgruntled Mr Maliki said the results were not final. “For sure, we will not accept these results,” he said.

The results still have to be formally approved by a court and Mr Maliki said he would challenge them through the legal process.

There are also no guarantees that Mr Allawi will head the next government, as his political bloc fell well short of a majority in the 325-member parliament. This means that the leading coalitions will need to form alliances with other groups, a process that observers say could take weeks or months.

Political negotiations have been ongoing almost since the last of some 12m votes was cast in the March 7 election, and the horse trading will now intensify. Even coalitions that campaigned on a single platform could split, meaning numerous scenarios are possible.

Mr Allawi, who drew strong support from minority Sunni Arabs who have felt marginalised since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, said he wanted to form “an inclusive, effective and non- sectarian government.”

“We extend our hand to all blocs, both those that were successful and those that weren’t to strive to form such a government, one that represents all Iraqis – those who voted for us, and those who didn’t,” he said.

The Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition led by the Iranian-backed Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrist movement loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric, ended up third with 70 seats. Those organisations, as well as Kurdish parties, will play an important role in deciding who forms the next government.

The election has been described as the most decisive moment in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country and it will determine who will lead Iraq as the US completes its military withdrawal by the end of 2011.

The reaction of Mr Maliki and his supporters, who had been predicting victory but increasingly cried foul as the race intensified, will now be carefully watched.

Last weekend Mr Maliki, a Shia, called for a recount, using his title as commander in chief of the armed forces and warning of a return to violence. Some interpreted his statement as a veiled threat, and the losers’ reaction will be the critical test of the tentative gains Iraq has made in the past 18 months.

In spite of security improvements, violence still persists in a nation riddled with divisions and distrust – much of the voting followed sectarian and ethnic lines. An important factor behind the highly competitive nature of contest was the high turnout of Sunni Arabs – who largely stayed away from the 2005 election – which added a new dynamic to an increasingly fragmented political environment.

Most Sunnis voted for Mr Allawi, who is a Shia but whose list is dominated by Sunni Arab parties. After holding the prime minister’s post during an interim period in 2004, Mr Allawi had faded from the political scene when Shia Islamist parties dominated 2005 elections.

Mr Maliki’s stature, meanwhile, had grown markedly since 2008 as he has claimed success for security gains and employed nationalist rhetoric. But he also became an increasingly divisive figure, upsetting other Shia and Kurdish politicians. And the suspicion with which Sunnis treat him was exposed by the meagre showing he garnered in Sunni-dominated provinces.

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