Iraqis Vote, But Backroom Deals May Decide Who Wins

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Election workers begin counting ballots in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul

The polls in Iraq stayed open an hour after the scheduled closing time Thursday to accommodate a surge in voter turnout all over the country. A more diverse group of Iraqis walked out of polling stations with the now-iconic ink-stained finger than in either the January election or the October referendum — and that is almost certain to create a fresh balance of power in the new parliament. With a wider variety of candidates and the participation of Sunni parties, this election was more competitive than the previous one, said 24-year-old student Wisam (who would only give his first name) as he left a polling center. The stakes are higher in this election, he added, because it "will form the government which will rule Iraq for the next four years."

Voters also seemed less likely to cast their ballots purely along sectarian lines today, observers say. For example, Emid Farion, a 64-year-old Baghdad lawyer said he had cast his ballot in January for the Shiite alliance out of religious obligation, following an edict from his spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. But this time around, with Sistani encouraging the faithful to vote their conscience, Farion was determined to consider all the options and make up his own mind. The result, he said, "will be a real test for Iraqi politicians."

The fact that Sistani, the undisputed kingmaker of previous elections, refrained from explicitly endorsing any one political alliance could leave the Shiite religious parties wielding much less power than they currently do, opening the field for other groups to make significant gains. Many Sunni political leaders, regretting being largely shut out after January's boycott, had urged their followers to turn out in large numbers. Some insurgent websites even called for a moratorium on attacks at polling stations so Sunni voters weren't scared away. Secular lists, like those led by Iyad Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi, were banking on the possibility that Iraqi voters might prefer non-sectarian leaders.

While in January, the Shiite list managed to garner a little over 50 percent of the vote—although it needed allies to achieve the two thirds of the assembly necessary to adopt a constitution—this time around no single bloc seems positioned to achieve the simple majority that would give it control of government. The results won't be out for weeks, but this could mean that Iraq's next government is determined less by the voters at the polls than by the backroom deals necessary to cobble together a ruling coalition. A Pentagon Middle East expert says he is less interested in the exit polls and will be paying more attention to what happens after the elections, watching to see what new alliances form once the members of parliament are in place. Barring an unexpected landslide for any one list, he said, "the numbers won't tell us much."

Still, the election result will be the factor that positions the power brokers for the inevitable horse-trading. The prime minister will be chosen from among the legislators, but may not necessarily come from the block that wins the most seats. Coalition cabinet positions will likely be awarded to parties like fiefdoms, leaving the prime minister without a clear mandate, and forced to manage ministers that he didn't hire and who don't answer entirely to him. That will likely produce a government rather like a Frankenstein of competing interests, requiring a delicate touch by the prime minister. If the head of state is perceived as weak and ineffectual, wary observers say, it could leave the country vulnerable to a coup d'etat—and this scenario doesn't bode well for a quick American withdrawal. U.S. forces in Iraq currently function as a buffer between competing interests, and a withdrawal could swing the security forces further into the hands of sectarian interests, precipitating undue influence of the armed forces in political affairs. Iraq's newly minted politicians were graded by the electorate Thursday, but the biggest test—whether they can negotiate and compromise and steer their country away from disaster—is yet to come.