A pivotal moment in Iraq as transfer of power looms

This has the potential to make or break Iraqi democracy. Former "American puppet" and premiere Ayad Allawi's Sunni-Shia secular party has apparently won the most seats in the recent parliamentary elections.

Technically, this gives the leader of the Iraqiya bloc the first shot at forming a government. But current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki appears ready to challenge the results, thus setting the stage for a potential restart of secular violence that tore the country apart just three years ago.

Margaret Coker writing in the Wall Street Journal:

The upset threatens to end the lock on power that Iraq's majority Shiites have enjoyed since the 2003 after decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein and could severely test the country's fragile institutions. Before the announcement, Shiite politicians warned of violence should their parties lose the election.

The preliminary results announced Friday night show Mr. Allawi's Iraqiya bloc winning 91 seats in the 325-member parliament to 89 seats for Mr. Maliki's State of Law.

In a hastily convened press conference, the prime minister announced he would press for a recount, citing suspicions of fraud.

However, the prime minister said that he would follow the legal procedures in place to contest the vote count and urged his followers to respect Iraq's stability.

According to the Iraqi electoral process, candidates have a three-day period to lodge complaints. After that, the Supreme Court ratifies the results.

The political list with the largest number of seats will have the first shot at forming a coalition government. These negotiations are widely expected to take several weeks, while various alliances cut deals over ministerial portfolios and contentious issues such as which ethnic group will be awarded the country's ceremonial presidency. 

First of all, the remarkable evolution of a largely secular party in Iraqi politics is a stunner. Think back 5 years ago when the first open vote in Iraqi history was taken and where the Shia parties garnered 70% of the vote. The Kurds got 21% and Allawi's National List Party received a paltry 8%. (Sunnis threw in their lot with Allawi for the most part although they stayed away from the polls in droves.)

The truly surprising aspect of this election to me is the apparent abandonment by a large number of Iraqis of religious parties. The second surprise is the vote by Shias for a Sunni dominated coalition. Is there a glimmer of hope that Iraq is beginning to grow up and that the fratricidal religious conflicts might be easing?

All depends on Maliki and how he handles his potential demotion. If Allawi beats him to the forming of a coalition, it will be the first attempt to peacefully transfer power in nation that has never known such a thing. Maliki may not have much to say about it as it is his underlings who might not look kindly on losing their power and status. But the prime minister is making noises as if he wants to settle this election by constitutional means. We'll see if he holds to that.

In the end, there is the real potential that some like Mookie al-Sadr won't accept the results and may stir things up by attacking Sunnis. Does the army have the ability to handle the situation? A very good question that we hope won't have to be answered.