A brave election does not remedy Iraq's dysfunction

The real test is not holding elections. What matters more is the wrangling over the composition of the new government and, afterwards, its perceived legitimacy and performance.

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By a few indicators at least, Sunday's national elections in Iraq went fairly well. Although several dozen civilians were killed and many Iraqis stayed home out of fear of attacks on voting booths and disgust with their new, largely distrusted political class, the predicted surge of violence meant to scare away voters did not materialise. Unlike in the 2005 elections, calls for a boycott within the Sunni community did not overshadow the process.

In fact, reports indicate that turnout was strong, a testament to the resilience and courage of a population that has successively suffered the most brutal dictatorship in the Arab world, a traumatic occupation and civil war with sectarian overtones that tore apart its neighbourhoods and its social fabric. The gradual build-up of Iraq's security institutions also had something to do with the relative quiet: almost one million policemen and soldiers are now deployed in the streets, a number that suffocates the insurgency and ensures loyalty through patronage.

The prospects of a return to the sectarian violence that engulfed the country for nearly six years are dim. Grievances have not evaporated, but fatigue, the perverse effects of resistance and the sad homogenisation of the country's once-diverse districts make it improbable that any new, sustained insurgency can emerge. Many Iraqis certainly rejoice at the freedom to choose their representatives among more than 6,000 candidates, but in burgeoning democracies, the real test is not holding elections per se. By their very nature, electoral politics are colourful, engaging and exciting, but what matters more is the wrangling over the composition of the new government, and once this inglorious episode ends, its perceived legitimacy and performance. If anything, Iraq's recent history and the closest democratic experiment of relevance, Lebanon, suggest that meeting these objectives will be difficult.

Indeed, even if security has markedly improved, the past six months have shown how little Iraq's politics have matured and how weak its institutions remain. It took America's strong-arm tactics to keep the elections on track. Political reconciliation has not progressed; in fact, the elections became a pretext to exclude rather than include those previously opposed to the political process. Difficult decisions, such as resolving the status of Kirkuk, have been pushed back.

This is why many fear that the elections, instead of correcting these weaknesses, may simply exacerbate the existing dysfunction. Indeed, Iraq is entering a perilous phase. It must form a government while adapting to the drawdown of US troops, and many things can go awry. With decreasing American muscle and prodding, but concomitant increasing Iranian, Arab and Turkish involvement, the ability of Iraqis to decide their future will be severely tested.

For a start, Iraq will be applying a set of constitutional rules and procedures obscure enough to be manipulated. Once the results have been certified (potentially a highly contentious process), the new parliament must elect a speaker, then a president and later a prime minister who must form a government. In theory, the next prime minister should come from the electoral slate that won the most seats in parliament, on the condition that he is able to form a government coalition. If he fails to do so within 30 days, the president can designate another prime minister. Given that it took five months for the incumbent cabinet to be formed after the 2005 elections, it is safe to predict a long and tumultuous transitional phase this time as well.

The formal requirement of a supermajority to form a government - a well-meaning way to guarantee cross-sectarian co-operation that actually enshrined confessionalism - is now defunct, opening the way for simple majority rule. Given that none of the three leading coalitions (the incumbent prime minister Nouri al Maliki's State of Law, Iyad Allawi's relatively secular Iraqiyyah list, and the Iraqi National Alliance [INA], the coalition of Shia parties supported by Iran) is expected to win the majority of the seats, forming cross-party alliances will be indispensable. But the ongoing clash of egos, loyalties and agendas can only intensify in the process.

Some Iraqis hope that the government can make up in performance what it loses in inclusiveness. That would require that the ruling parties uphold constitutional and procedural rules, respect the rights of the minority factions, and refrain from grabbing power, as Mr al Maliki has recently been accused. This is a tall order for a political class that lacks vision and maturity. In practice, however, even the most sectarian Shia prime minister would need the pretence of cross-confessional co-operation: excluding the Kurdish bloc, for instance, would threaten the country's very unity. This is why possible political combinations are infinite. A victorious Mr al Maliki might decide to appeal to the INA and form a strong Shia government, but would lose his new nationalistic credentials in the process. Or he could reach out to more secular elements and hope that his Shia base follows him. Mr Allawi hopes that al Maliki-INA negotiations will fail, or that alliances will fracture, so he can emerge as the white knight.

It is obvious that there are ways for losers or disgruntled parties to undermine the whole process. For instance, if the INA performs poorly, it could use its influence over the infamous Accountability and Justice Committee (also known as the de-Ba'athification committee) to interfere in the process and question the credentials of newly elected MPs. The politicking that comes with back room deals and dividing portfolios will undoubtedly frustrate the many voters who went to the polls on Sunday. This, however, is the look of imperfect democracy.