For the second time this year, Baghdad’s walls are plastered with campaign posters, as Iraq’s main parties and movements prepare for the December 15 parliamentary elections that will issue usher in the country’s first permanent post-invasion government.

But while the largest coalitions remain roughly the same similar as they were to those in the January elections that issued in the for the outgoing transitional parliament, many are now expecting a shake-up in Iraq’s balance of power.

Whereas the main task of the outgoing government was perceived to be crafting a constitution, the new cabinet will need to win over the Sunni Arab community that dominates the insurgency, restore confidence in the currently ineffective Iraqi state, and pave the way for a withdrawal of US troops.

Last time, a pan-Shia conglomeration union of both Islamists and secularists called the United Iraqi Alliance took nearly half the total vote, riding on support from members of the country’s majority sect anxious to claim what they believed to be their rightful role leading the country, as well as the blessing of influential cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The Alliance is back with posters of Shia crowds commemorating their martyred clerics, but the Grand Ayatollah himself has so far refused to make any statement that could be perceived as an endorsement, and sectarian solidarity is thought to have been weakened by the perceived ineffectiveness of the Islamist parties in government.

The UIA has hedged its bets by giving the movement loyal to radical Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr 30 seats on its list, the same as the two mainstream parties, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the various factions of the Dawa party, which thanks to years in exile are thought to have a relatively weak grassroots support base.

But some UIA candidates however say that Mr Sistani will soon issue an implicit endorsement of the Alliance.

A number of electoral lists, meanwhile, are pitching themselves as anti-sectarian, with the Iraqi National List of former prime minister Iyad Allawi the most prominent.

Although himself a Shia, Mr Allawi is clearly courting Sunni Arab voters, declaring earlier this week that human rights abuses today under the new Shia-dominated government were comparable to those under the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

Also campaigning in the centre are at least four coalitions headed by former UIA members such as Ahmed Chalabi, whose Iraqi National Congress says it opposes the UIA’s mixing of religion and politics.

The former UIA members’ grassroots appeal is untested, but for so many Shia politicians to strike out alone suggests that they think there are votes to be won from secular-minded Shia and others sceptical of the current government’s perceived sectarianism and inefficiency.

Of Iraq’s other major main ethnic and sectarian blocs, the two main Kurdish parties are running in coalition as they did in January, and despite the breakaway of a Kurdish Islamist group, are expected to sweep the vote among Kurds who of an ethnicity thought to number some 20 per cent of the population.

The wild card in the new elections meanwhile will be Sunni Arab-dominated coalitions such as the Iraqi Consensus Front, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, and the National Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc, which will court the votes of a community who that largely boycotted the polls in January, but which is expected to turn out in strength in December.

With so many coalitions in flux, one of the few safe bets is that the vote will yield a more diverse parliament than in January.

On one hand, The presence of a strong Sunni contingent in parliament and a reduction in the numbers of Shia Islamists may help wean Sunni Arabs away from the insurgency. But a heavily divided parliament may prolong the process of forming a government and increase public perception of the weakness of the state.

Iraqis chafed during the It took nearly nearly three months it took for an election to be organised formed under the outgoing parliament but western sources cautioned have suggested that forming a cabinet after December could take even longer.

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