With 95 percent of the votes counted, Iraqis do not yet know who their next prime minister is. However, it is becoming increasingly certain that while the chances of lawmaker Ayad Allawi winning are slim, incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki or someone from his coalition, most probably Oil Minister Hussein Shahrastani, will take the position.
Since before the elections, the major Iraqi and regional players were prepared for four scenarios.
First, Maliki was hoping that he would win a parliamentary bloc big enough to allow him to dictate the formation of a coalition of junior partners and invite his opponents to take it or leave it. Maliki’s electoral performance was strong, but not sweeping, and he saw his plans scrapped as the count proceeded.
Meanwhile, Allawi was hoping that his Iraqiya ticket would come out on top, and was planning on replacing Maliki after accusing him of becoming an autocrat. But in order to isolate Maliki, Allawi needed partners to form a coalition, which in Iraq is easier said than done.
Even if the United States prevails on its Kurdish allies to iron out their differences with the Sunnis over the establishment of a federal state and the fate of Kirkuk, Allawi, the Kurds and other smaller blocs can barely obtain the 163 seats necessary to rule without one of the two other major Shia blocs, Maliki’s State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA).
Allawi realized this shortfall and tried to lure the INA to join a cabinet under his leadership, but it does not look like Iran is interested in giving away the premiership to Allawi, the Shia figurehead of a Sunni coalition.
Short of a drastic turn of events, Allawi has slim chances of becoming prime minister.
In the meantime, the INA and Iran were hoping for a landslide win with Kurdish help. At the very least, they wanted to keep Maliki – or anyone from his Shia alliance – in power in order to keep the Sunnis and Allawi at bay.
The United States, on the other hand, has been indifferent over whether Maliki or Allawi forms the cabinet, as long as INA lawmakers – such as Jamal Jaafar, who is believed to be a top advisor to General Qassem Suleimani, Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Brigade – stay out of power.
For Washington, an ideal coalition would include Maliki, Allawi and the Kurds and would enjoy a wide majority in parliament as it represents the country’s three main blocs, the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds.
But squeezing rivals Maliki and Allawi into one coalition would be almost impossible, especially given that both of them aspire to become prime minister.
So as the Maliki, Allawi and American scenarios prove to be unlikely, it is Iran that emerges as the winner.
Maliki’s State of Law bloc and the INA have already started talks to form a coalition under the banner of Shia empowerment and containment of the surge of Sunni power with Allawi’s strong electoral performance.
The Kurds are expected to join the Maliki-INA alliance, and the three blocs look like they are on their way to rule without the Sunnis.
Hurdles, however, remain in the way of an agreement between Maliki and the INA, including the INA’s demands that the incumbent PM be sidelined in favor of one of his lieutenants, most probably Shahrastani.
But if Maliki and his coalition stand their ground and insist that Maliki retain his job, the INA may yield out of fear that Allawi and the Sunnis would exploit such division between the two Shia blocs.
Should the INA allow Maliki or anyone from his coalition to become prime minister, the State of Law will be politically indebted to the INA and Iran.
Iran will thus emerge as the biggest winner from the Iraqi elections. Such a victory could have been avoided had Allawi, along with his domestic and regional Sunni backers, realized that if squeezed, Maliki’s only fallback plan would be Iran and its Iraqi allies.
Over the past two years, Maliki has tried to style himself as an independent national force. He reached out to neighboring Sunni leaders, who shut him out, accusing him of being an Iranian puppet.
Now too weak to form a cabinet on his own, and kept at arm’s length from domestic and Sunni regional powers, Maliki will be forced to reconnect with his former Shia partners and Iran.
Iran has managed yet again to defeat the United States and its regional Arab partners, this time not through militia power and bullying like in Lebanon, but by using skillful politics and following a long-term vision, the two things that anti-Iran powers in the region and around the world have so far seemed unable to master.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a visiting fellow at Chatham House and a correspondent for Al-Rai newspaper