Iraq's Election: Can It Pull a Country Together?

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Ahmed al-Hussainey / AP

An Iraqi policeman casts his vote at a polling center in Karbala, Iraq.

As voters go to the polls on Sunday for Iraq's third parliamentary election, the fragile stability of a country still recovering from a vicious civil war hangs in the balance. Iraq's leaders have so far been unable to resolve central issues regarding the shape of the Iraqi state — oil sharing, the boundaries of disputed territories, and the balance of power between the central government and the regions. The surge of U.S. troops and the deployment of U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces bought time for another shot at political reconciliation. But the window for national compromise is closing fast, with the U.S. planning to complete its withdrawal of combat troops by August, and of all its troops by the end of 2011.

However important these elections may be, they may not offer much immediate drama. With thousands of polling places, paper balloting and overseas voting, it may take several days to tabulate and announce the results. And since no one of the major coalitions appears to have enough support to form a government, it's likely that the real action won't be at the ballot box, but in back-room wheeling-and-dealing to form a government, which could take weeks.

Like most elections, Iraq's is in part a referendum on the incumbent, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is running on his record of bringing security and normal life back to Iraq. Originally chosen as a compromise candidate by rival Shi'ite leaders who expected him to be a weak prime minister, he surprised the country by consolidating power, reaching out beyond his Shi'ite base and embracing the cause of national unity. Still, Maliki's State of Law coalition has significant weaknesses. Though untouched by scandal himself, the Iraqi government is notoriously corrupt, and voters remain unhappy about the lack of services such as electricity.

Maliki's main rival is former Prime Minster Iyad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, which also favors a stronger central government. Allawi's coalition is billing itself as a more secular alternative to the current government, and draws more support from Sunni groups, who are going to play a more significant role in this election than in 2005, when they boycotted the political process in protest of the American occupation.

This time around, Maliki also has to look over his shoulder at his former Shi'ite allies, who have formed a coalition without him. The Iraqi National Alliance — led by Ammar al-Hakin, Moqtadah al-Sadr and Ahmed Chalabi among others — is more Islamist, and more friendly with Iran than Maliki's Dawa party.

Another major wild card this time is the Kurds. In the last elections, the two ruling parties of the Kurdish regional government — the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq — voted lock-step for a Kurdish list, giving them significant leverage with Arab Iraqi parties in post-election negotiations. But though they joined Maliki's ruling coalition and formed a government together, the Kurdish ruling parties complain that Maliki hasn't delivered on his promises to return disputed areas to Kurdish authority. This time, the Kurds may be tempted into an alliance with the anti-Maliki Shi'ites.

The final composition of the government will nominally affect the future direction of the Iraqi state — whether it becomes more centralized in the hands of the Baghdad government, or whether power is devolved to the regions, especially the Shi'ite-dominated south and the Kurdish north. But either direction could destabilize the country. Devolution could spark a civil war between Arabs and Kurds, while further centralization in a country with a history of totalitarianism could put Iraq on a slippery slope to a new kind of dictatorship.

In the end, however, the most important question about the election is not so much the result but the behavior of the participants. Do they accept the results, can they form a government quickly, and can that government move forward on an agenda? If Iraq's leaders can't work out a compromise without Vice President Joe Biden — the Administration's point man on Iraq — making several trips to Baghdad, the chances are slim the Iraqi political system will be able to stand on its own once the U.S. leaves.