The Iraqi general election has ended in a narrow ‘victory' for the former Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi. His secular-nationalist Iraqiya List alliance has won 91 seats in the 325-member Council of Representatives, two more than incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition. The Independent High Electoral Commission has deemed the election to be free and fair and the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq, Ed Melkart, has found both the process and the outcome to be “credible.” Overall, on a turnout of 60 per cent, numbering 12 million voters, two other formations have done well and they hold the key to the new government. These are the Kurdish Alliance, Kurdistania, which bagged 43 seats, and the Iraqi National Alliance, the resurgent Shia-majority bloc which took 70 seats, including 38 for the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Al-Ahrar Party. Whether Mr. Allawi succeeds in his efforts to put together the 163 seats needed for a majority will depend on how astutely he negotiates with the other leaders and, as importantly, on the fairness of the post-electoral rules.

The initial problems have to do with the conduct of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose first response to the result was to demand a recount. A day before the results were announced, he persuaded Iraq's Supreme Court to rule that the government would be formed by the leader of the bloc that has the largest number when parliament convenes, which will probably be in June. In a manoeuvre that smacked of electoral fraud, officials of the Accountability and Justice Commission, who are involved in removing former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from public posts, banned six candidates, including three from Mr. Allawi's party, on the eve of the March 7 election. Iraqiya will appeal the bans in the courts. Mr. Allawi's track record of working for British intelligence and of being cultivated by the U.S. does pose a political problem. Including the Sadrist grouping in government would help reflect the spread of support in the election. The Sadrists campaigned for the early departure of U.S. forces, and have since strengthened their stand in keeping with the desire of the Iraqi people to free themselves from foreign occupation and interference. A national unity government led by the Shia parties, with Mr. Allawi's Iraqia acting as a counterweight to Shia extremism, would be a reasonable outcome. But achieving this will test Mr. Allawi's political skills severely.

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