Who will lead Iraq?

In Iraq, winning the vote and winning power are two entirely different propositions. Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s secular Iraqiya bloc has garnered the most seats in parliament, beating current Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s predominantly Shiite State of Law coalition. Allawi’s 91 seats give him a plurality, not an outright majority, in the 325-seat parliament, but the constitution says that the top vote-getter should have the first shot at forming a government.

Nevertheless, Maliki has been challenging the election results every which way, within the elastic boundaries of the law. He has tried but so far failed to secure a recount of what international observers determined to be a sufficiently fair and transparent vote. And just before the final results were released last week, the Supreme Court concluded, at Maliki’s urging, that the right to form the next government could go to alliances and super-coalitions formed after the election, if they prove to have the most seats. Maliki promptly launched negotiations with other religious Shiite and Kurdish parties.

Now the Accountability and Justice Commission, which already had banned scores of candidates with alleged ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from the election, says six others slipped through the cracks, won seats and should be disqualified. Removing them would alter the outcome, because several appear to be from Allawi’s Shiite-Sunni bloc (and because Allawi’s coalition won by only two seats). Not incidentally, the commission’s head, Ali Lami, belongs to a party that is reportedly in merger talks with Maliki.

Perhaps some of this is just postelection posturing, but to us it looks like shenanigans. What’s more, not only are these dubious maneuvers potentially destabilizing in such a fragile country, but they are probably unnecessary for Maliki’s bloc to come out on top.

Allawi, a British-trained surgeon who served as interim prime minister after the U.S.-led invasion, won the votes of many secular Shiites like himself and many more from the disaffected Sunni minority that lost power when Hussein was overthrown. But he has fewer options for forming a coalition government than does Maliki, who can reach out to other religious Shiite parties as well as to the Kurds, with whom he already is working in the current government.

In our view, Maliki should ease up on the gamesmanship and focus instead on building peace and stability in Iraq. Many of the votes for Allawi were votes for a strong national government in Baghdad and against sectarianism. Whoever serves as prime minister must form an inclusive government and seek reconciliation among the ethnic and religious factions. It isn’t enough just to govern Iraq. What’s needed is leadership.