BAGHDAD // As vote counting enters its final stages, the two main contenders in Iraq's election continue to swap lead position, leaving the nation's future hinging on a few thousand ballots. Ayad Allawi, the main challenger to the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, yesterday edged in front once again, his Iraqiyya list holding a slender 7,790 vote advantage with 93 per cent of ballots tallied.
Only another 80,000 of the almost 12 million votes cast remain to be counted. Mr al Maliki's State of Law coalition was still winning in seven of Iraq's 18 provinces, three more than Iraqiyya, a distinction that could prove critical in determining which group wins the most seats in the 325-member parliament. Under Iraq's constitution, it is the leader of the largest parliamentary bloc who will be asked to form a government.
The tightness of the election race means that, even with the vast majority of votes counted, the critical question of who will lead Iraq - an issue with serious implications for the Middle East and the wider world - remains unanswered. So does the question of whether or not a bitterly fought election campaign can bring about a situation of peaceful national unity when a winner is declared. Both Iraqiyya and the State of Law were yesterday claiming victory, and both groups said they were confident they had secured the backing of exactly the same set of other smaller parties, whose support will be essential for any prime minister.
The Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a sectarian Shiite group, and the Kurdistani list, the main Kurdish bloc, are both on course to have enough parliamentary seats to give them roles as potential power brokers in any governing coalition. "I am certain the final result will be a win for Nouri al Maliki and it will be for him to build the next government," said Haider al Abadi, a prospective MP from the State of Law coalition. "There is going to be a lot of hard negotiations and we have already begun talks with the Iraqi National Alliance, the Kurdistani list, as well as other parties like Tawafuq and Goran [a new Kurdish group].
"It is these parties that will form the next government. We have promises that the Kurds want to maintain their alliance with the Dawa party that was so strong in 2005." Mr al Abadi said the State of Law coalition was also holding secret meetings with a party inside Iraqiyya, with the expectation it would break away from Mr Allawi and join an al Maliki-led government. He declined to name the party but there has been speculation that any of the three main electoral coalitions could fracture in the post-election period.
Haider al Mullah, a candidate with the Iraqiyya list, made almost exactly the same set of claims for his own group, insisting Iraqiyya was "sure" Mr Allawi would be asked to form the government. "We will align with the Iraqi National Alliance and the Kurdistani list," he said. "There will of course be some very serious negotiations involved." Mr al Mullah said the INA and Kurdistani lists had entered into an "informal, unwritten" agreement to prevent Mr al Maliki being nominated as prime minister for a second term.
"If Maliki is prime minister again, he and the Dawa party will try to cement their hold on power forever and that is dangerous for Iraq. We all know that," Mr al Mullah said. "We will not allow another dictatorship to spring up here." The INA and Kurds have, as yet, remained publicly non-committal about their preferences for a governing alliance. Both have reasons to be dissatisfied with Mr al Maliki, who went some way to alienating them during his tenure. Yet, by the same token, the INA and Kurds also have checkered histories with Mr Allawi that could prevent them taking his side.
The reality of this crucial post-election period, despite the various claims and counterclaims, seems to be that all options remain open. Supporters of Mr al Maliki quietly say they would not rule out an alliance with Mr Allawi, if necessary. Mr Allawi's supporters similarly - and quietly - admit the same thing, depending on circumstances. Despite the latest small swing in Iraqiyya's favour, Moyad al Ghanim, an independent political analyst, said the results pointed to a State of Law victory - but one that would not necessarily involve Mr al Maliki as prime minister.
"The most likely governing alliance will be the same as we had in 2005," he said. "Maliki will align with the INA and the Kurds but he may have to bow to their demands that he is not prime minister. He won't want to do that, but he might if the only alternative is Allawi taking the job." email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org Phil Sands reported from Damascus