BAGHDAD, Iraq — Millions of Iraqi voters defied bombings and intimidation to cast ballots in the country's March 7 parliamentary election, which was billed as historic because it was the first since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 to be organized, carried out and secured by Iraqis.
The excitement of Election Day wore off quickly, however, and the country's been locked in a state of political paralysis ever since as its top politicians battle to control the next government.
The results were an upset: Secular Shiite Muslim politician Ayad Allawi's bloc won more seats in parliament than favored incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a conservative Shiite, did. The margin was so close, however, that political maneuvering to change the results has delayed the seating of a new government.
Here's a look at where the election results stand, what happens next and when a new government might take shape in Baghdad.
Q: Have the major players changed since election day?
A: Not much. The main blocs are still Allawi's Iraqiya, a mixed-sect ticket with broad Sunni support; Maliki's State of Law, mostly from his conservative Shiite Dawa Party; the Iraqi National Alliance, the main religious Shiite grouping of Iranian-backed parties, including politicians loyal to militant cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
The two main Kurdish parties ran on a single ticket as the Kurdistan Alliance. An upstart Kurdish opposition party, Gorran, won some seats, as well.
Q: One of the first snags was an attempt to disqualify some winning candidates by accusing them of ties to the late dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Did they lose their seats?
A: There were several rounds of de-Baathification, the controversial process of rooting out former Baathists and barring them from public service. Former exile and Bush administration ally Ahmad Chalabi and his deputy Ali al Lami, who both ran in the elections, oversaw the purges.
Hundreds of candidates were eliminated, but an Iraqi court Monday ruled in favor of nine victorious candidates whose cases were in dispute. Those candidates are expected to take their seats in the next parliament.
Q: Maliki rejected the election commission's results and demanded a partial recount. Did the recount uncover fraud or change the results?
A: At Maliki's insistence, a court ruled that the election commission should conduct a recount, but only in Baghdad province. The recount uncovered no major fraud and didn't alter Allawi's Iraqiya bloc's slight lead.
Q: OK, so now the recount is over and the de-Baathification efforts have been suspended. What's next?
A: The next step is for Iraq's top court to certify the final election results, which would start the clock on forming a government in accordance with the Iraqi constitution. The chief delay now is the intense, behind-the-scenes haggling over who'll get the prime minister's post and other key positions. With no group winning an outright majority, alliances are starting to take shape.
For now, it looks as if Maliki's State of Law and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi National Alliance are pairing up to challenge Allawi's group for a majority in parliament. However, the Sadrists, a backbone of the Alliance, have long opposed Maliki as premier, which jeopardizes cooperation between the two groups.
Also, there's growing concern that cutting out Allawi, whose bloc was the nation's top vote-getter, would be unacceptable to millions of Iraqis who voted for him, especially the Sunni minority.
Q. What do ordinary Iraqis think?
A. The word on the street is similar to the criticism from political quarters: The leadership is too busy guarding its own interests to pay attention to the security and other needs of ordinary citizens.
With so many government offices in limbo, Iraqis say, everyday aspects of life have slowed to a halt: obtaining passports, approving state jobs, road and utility repairs, awarding contracts, to name just a few.
The longer and bloodier this transition becomes, the more Iraqis begin to question their participation in the democratic process.
Q. So when can we expect to see a new government?
A. It's hard to say. Maliki has predicted that it won't take longer than July. Foreign diplomats speculate it'll be sometime this summer; religious authorities hope things will be resolved in time for the holy month of Ramadan, which begins in August; and other political observers fear that it could last into the fall.
Q. What are some of the main points of negotiation among all these blocs?
A. Each bloc holds some powerful cards. Allawi's bloc is the top vote getter, has the most Sunni support and is looked upon favorably by both the Americans and Iraq's Arab neighbors. Maliki also won a huge number of votes, is the incumbent and has branded himself with some success as a nationalist.
The chief kingmakers are the Sadrists, who want hundreds of their prisoners released and some senior cabinet posts, and the Kurds, who are insisting on keeping the presidency, gaining control of oil-rich Kirkuk and other territories that Sunni Arabs also claim, and holding cabinet positions in numbers that are proportionate to the Kurdish population.
Q. What's the role of the Americans, the Iranians and other foreign powers with vested interests in the outcome of the Iraqi elections?
A. Both the Americans and Iranians have played it cool publicly, while meeting privately with all the key players.
The Americans prefer a government that includes Sunnis and other minorities and is diverse enough to act as a spoiler to outright Iranian control.
The Iranians, who have numerous allies and agents in Iraq, would like to see a continuation of Tehran-friendly, Shiite-dominated government, though some Iranian officials have said that some of Allawi's allies must be included in order to work toward a more stable Iraq.
Q. Who's in charge while all these negotiations are going on? Are there limitations on the caretaker government?
A. Maliki's administration is carrying on with business as usual, but absent a parliament, the government cannot enter into international treaties, declare war or make any other major decisions that normally would require parliamentary approval.
Q. Are there constitutional mechanisms to ensure that the paralysis doesn't last forever?
A. Yes. However, the current government found loopholes after the last parliamentary elections in 2005. For example, the constitution calls for the naming of a speaker of parliament in the legislature's first session. To get around this and buy more time, the last parliament simply called a session to order and didn't adjourn it for several weeks.
Strictly speaking, once the top court certifies the election results, the parliament must convene within 15 days. In the first session, the members are required to choose a speaker and two deputy speakers. After that, they're supposed to name the Iraqi president, though the constitution doesn't specify a timeline.
Once a president is elected by parliament, the president has 15 days to ask the nominee of the largest bloc in parliament to form a government within a month. If that fails, the president can ask another candidate from any bloc to try.
Q. Will the delay in forming a government affect security in Iraq?
A. Many Iraqis, including members of the current parliament, argue that the delay already has chipped away at security.
In the aftermath of a series of devastating bombings, including a day when attacks killed more than 100 people, some Iraqi politicians said that militants were taking advantage of the security void, which they blamed on the Iraqi leadership's preoccupation with political negotiations.
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