Reversing decades of political dominance by minority Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds probably won the most seats in Sunday’s national assembly election.
The voting seems almost certain to guarantee that Iraq’s new prime minister will be a Shiite Muslim, the majority group in Iraq. But beyond that, it is not yet known how the newfound power of Shiites will translate into policy, because there are sharp ideological divisions between religious and secular members of the sect.
Though tabulating the vote is expected to take several days, the patterns of voting Sunday were clear: The plurality, if not the majority, of seats in the transitional 275-member national assembly will be held by Shiites on the United Iraqi Alliance list, put together at the behest of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s top Shiite cleric.
Voting was especially strong in the southern provinces, where there was broad support for the list, which includes both religious figures and secular Shiites.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s list, which includes many secular Shiites as well as some Sunnis, was expected to win about 20% of the vote. The two major Kurdish parties -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party, which combined on a single slate -- were also expected to garner about 20% of the vote, according to Iraqi politicians, diplomats and election observers.
Overall, however, few Sunni Arabs were expected to win seats because many people in Sunni areas boycotted the polls or were too afraid of violence to vote. The insurgency has been strongest in central Iraq, where most of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs live.
Voting was almost nonexistent in the largely Sunni provinces of Al Anbar, Salahuddin, Nineveh and Diyala, Western officials said. For instance, in Baqubah, a city of 300,000 north of Baghdad that has a substantial Sunni population, just 17,000 people voted.
The one exception to the low turnout in central Iraq was Baghdad, Western officials said. Low turnout had been expected in the capital, which has a number of mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods. But it was running at more than 65%, according to early estimates, and a number of Sunnis appeared to be voting.
Politicians are waiting to see exactly what portion of the total votes they win in order to determine how much leverage they have to demand ministerial posts or one of the top jobs, such as prime minister.
The process of forming a government will give Iraqis a taste of participatory democracy for the first time.
“There will be horse-trading and uncertainty and politics, and that is success,” said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, who ran on the Kurdish slate.
Under the Iraqi election system, each voter selected a slate of candidates. The number of seats each slate receives in the assembly will be determined by the slate’s share of the total votes cast. For example, if a slate won 20% of the vote, it would get 55 of the 275 seats. The top 55 names on the slate’s list of candidates would enter the assembly.
The chief responsibility of the newly elected members of the transitional assembly will be to oversee the drafting of the Iraqi constitution. It will be a challenge to find ways to bring Sunnis into that process. For the moment, the public stance among many leading Shiite candidates is to be inclusive.
“We think it’s very important that the constitution be written by all Iraqis and for all Iraqis,” said Hussein Shahristani, a nuclear scientist who has one of the top slots on the United Iraqi Alliance list.
But before a constitution is drafted, the assembly must choose a presidency council, which will include a president and two vice presidents. The council will pick a prime minister, who in turn will select the government Cabinet ministers.
The three council seats and the post of prime minister are the chief political prizes, along with speaker of the assembly. Other choice posts include the most powerful ministries, such as interior, defense, finance and health.
Because the assembly must approve the presidency council, the prime minister and the Cabinet, it is widely expected that all the posts will be worked out and then put before the legislators as a single package. The process could take up to eight weeks.
Members of the United Iraqi Alliance already are thinking about how to include some Sunnis in the government. Ahmad Chalabi, who holds a high position on the slate and was a longtime member of the Iraqi opposition that sought to overthrow Saddam Hussein, said he was confident that a Sunni would get a high position.
“A Sunni will get one of the top three jobs: the presidency, the prime minister’s job or the speaker of assembly,” Chalabi said. “My view is that the speaker of the assembly is the most important job because the assembly will run the show.”
The other chief role for Sunnis will be on the committee that drafts the constitution; Sunnis already have indicated they would accept seats on that panel.
Most of the Sunnis selected for such posts probably will be chosen from among those elected to the national assembly. That would give moderate Sunnis representation, but may do little to draw in the vast number of Sunnis who feel estranged from the political process.
“Tomorrow the insurgency is still going to be there, and we’re still going to have to deal with the issue of Sunni alienation,” a Western official said.
In addition to the United Iraqi Alliance, Allawi’s slate and the Kurdish group, three other slates are likely to hold some sway in the new government: the Communist Party; the Iraqi Independent Democrats, led by elder statesman Adnan Pachachi; and Iraqiyoon, led by interim President Ghazi Ajil Yawer.
All three of those political groups favor a secular government.
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After the election: Forming the Iraqi government
On Sunday, Iraqis elected a transitional national assembly that will appoint a government and draft a constitution. How the 11-month process will unfold:
Iraqis elect a transitional national assembly.
By mid-February: Election officials count the ballots and certify the winners.
Late February or early March: The 275-member assembly takes office.
By Aug. 15: The assembly completes the drafting of a constitution.
By Oct. 15: Iraqis vote to approve or reject the constitution.
By Dec. 15: If the constitution is approved, Iraqis vote to elect a permanent national assembly.
Dec. 31: Newly elected assembly takes office.
Jan. 1, 2006: If the transitional assembly fails to draft a constitution or the voters reject the constitution, a new transitional assembly will be elected and will have one year to redraft the constitution.
275-member body chooses the presidential council, proposes bills and makes laws. The assembly can override a presidential council veto with a two-thirds vote.
275-member national assembly selects presidential council: President, Vice president, Vice president
Council selects prime minister
Prime minister selects council of ministers (Prime Minister determines number of ministers in council)
Council selects supreme court
The national assembly elects a president and two deputies from its members. The council chooses a prime minister from the assembly members and appoints a supreme court. The assembly must approve the prime minister. The council can veto assembly legislation.
Manages daily government operations and holds power over armed forces. Prime minister nominates council of ministers.
Council of ministers
Advise prime minister on governmental matters. Assembly approves minister nominations.
Nine members rule on challenges to laws enacted by assembly.
Source: Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period. Graphics reporting by Brady MacDonald