More than a month after Iraq’s first democratic national election was held amid controversy and claims of fraud and irregularities, the electoral results for the new government and membership of a new 275-seat Council of Representatives were finally announced.
Well before the results were revealed, however, political jockeying had already begun as leading politicians sought the agreements and alliances that are essential to form a government for a four-year term.
As anticipated, votes were largely cast along ethnic and sectarian lines and the election results reflected the Iraqi social landscape.
The main Shiite religious alliance, the United Iraqi Alliance, won 128 seats out of 275. The Kurdistan Coalition List won 53 seats and the main Sunni Arab bloc (Iraqi Accord Front and Iraqi Front for National Dialogue) won 55 seats. Considerable Sunni turnout was in sharp contrast to the elections in January 2005, when the Sunni blocs only obtained a total of 17 seats, despite mass boycotting and a barrage of violence.
The main Shiite coalition is still far short of the 184 seats required to govern in its own right and it will need to form alliances to attain the absolute majority required for a coalition government.
Despite claims of an agreement in principle among the major players to form a united government, the finer print of any agreement will take many weeks, if not months, to emerge. If Iraq's recent history is any guide, negotiations are likely to be protracted, tense and arduous.
However, given a raging insurgency that refuses to buckle, a long-term binding of the Iraqi ethno-social landscape will be crucial to ensuring that Iraq progresses on its path to prosperity. Striking the right tone with the Sunni bloc is perhaps the only significant measure to undermine the insurgency and those who support it. A similar Kurdish-Shiite alliance would only widen the sectarian gap, creating a gulf that the country itself may drown in.
Aside from the election results, there has to be a sensitive balance among the three represented groups in the Council. The distribution of key posts, including finance, interior, oil and defence, will dominate negotiations. If played correctly, common concord is achievable. Sunni control of defence would go a long way to undermine and defeat the Sunni-inspired insurgency, which will directly or indirectly put pressure on the negotiations.
Due to the diverse and continually fragmented nature of Iraq, only a unique democracy may placate the factions. Despite the election results, all of the parties still covet a piece of the cake and must be given top ministerial posts to ensure an equilibrium that is practicable.
A successful staging of the election is just the tip of the iceberg. With the Shiites adamant that the constitution will not change, this only increases Sunni fears of a prelude to a break up of the country and a monopolisation of Iraq's oil wealth among the Kurds and Shiites. Conversely, Sunni objection is seen by many as just a sign of their unwillingness to accept the demise of their decades-old power.
The Kurds, on the other hand, are potential kingmakers as arbitrators between the Sunnis and Shiites. In recent weeks, both Sunnis and Shiites have set out to ascertain Kurdish support. The Kurds are happy to form a coalition with any group that meets their demands (with the return of oil-rich Kirkuk high on the wish list). Both Sunni and Shiite parties may succumb to Kurdish demands in return for supporting the dilution of either sectarian groups' influence.
With a fractured society, the path to forming a government will be exasperating. However, long-term unity is imaginable by establishing an inclusive government, with a basis of more than just token participation. A government with a fine balance of power between the key cabinet posts, particularly between the president and prime minister, will ensure that no groups will have the ability to monopolise power.
What is evident, however, is that Iraq has witnessed many false dawns in the past three years, and the Iraqis may have to endure more delay, before peace and stability becomes a reality in the not-too-distant future.