The final results of Iraq's elections are yet to be released, but with 95 per cent of the votes counted, it is clear that the contest is a dead heat between the two leading parties - the State of Law list headed by Nouri al Maliki, Iraq's current prime minister, and the Al Iraqiya list headed by former prime minister Iyad Allawi. The eventual winner will have the first shot at forming a coalition government, but these negotiations are widely expected to take several weeks, and Iraq's next government is unlikely to be seated before May. While there is still a real risk that allegations of fraud, or a prolonged electoral deadlock, could trigger contentious or violent protests, the vote in Iraq can still avoid the ignominious fate of recent "decisive elections" in the region, like those in Afghanistan and Iran.
Contrary to the persistent worries of outside observers, Iraq is not unravelling. Indeed, the results suggest that Iraqi nationalism is becoming a more potent force than sectarianism and that most voters have no trouble accepting a strong central government. Both of the leading lists - al Maliki's Shiite-dominated "party of state" and Allawi's avowedly nonsectarian alliance - claimed to represent Iraqi nationalism, and both potential prime ministers have reputations for the forceful exercise of state power. Meanwhile, lists identified with sectarian, Iranian or American interests fared poorly. Prominent symbols of the American-backed Sunni "Awakening" in Anbar Province were wiped out in the elections, capturing only a handful of seats. Within the Shiite Iraqi National Alliance, candidates affiliated with Muqtada al Sadr far outpaced those hailing from the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq; while both have ties to Iran, where al Sadr himself resides, ISCI is closer to the leadership in Tehran while the Sadrists tend to be more deeply rooted in the Shiite underclass and to voice a more pugnacious Iraqi nationalism. Mithal al Alousi, a pro-American politician known for his outspoken views, failed to win a single seat. And a number of leading members of the post-2003 ruling elite were undone by the open-list voting system, which allowed Iraqis to select their preferred candidates from among each electoral list rather than accepting the rankings carefully negotiated in advance by party leaders. The remarkable performance of the Iraqiya list, which is headed by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, and includes Tareq al Hashemi, the current Sunni vice president, and a number of other leading Sunni political figures, has been the greatest surprise of the election. In the last national elections in 2005, Allawi managed only eight per cent of the vote and a mere 25 seats. He spent much of the last four years outside of Iraq, while his party meandered aimlessly through the political landscape. But in that period, he engaged frequently with disgruntled Sunnis (including, it is alleged, with exiled Baathists) and emerged as a vocal critic of what he called al Maliki's creeping authoritarianism. As the election campaign unfolded, Allawi cleverly positioned himself as the most plausible alternative to al Maliki. His nationalist, non-sectarian positioning allowed him to appeal to Sunnis, but also to Shiites dissatisfied with sectarianism and frustrated with al Maliki's autocratic and abrasive style. At the same time, Allawi emerged as the clear favourite of Iraq's non-Iranian neighbours, with palpable support from Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Allawi also clearly benefited from the remarkable "de-Baathification" antics of the Accountability and Justice Commission (AJC) headed by Ahmed Chalabi and Ali Faisal al Lami. The AJC's sudden disqualification of a vast swathe of politicians, including Saleh al Mutlak from the Al Iraqiya list, from standing on the elections based on undisclosed evidence of Baathist connections turned the election campaign upside down. The polarisation of the election and the focus on the Baathist question, rather than on the "Awakenings" period, helped Al Iraqiya garner the pragmatic support of many Sunnis. Chalabi and al Lami's gambit seems to have backfired, as their Iraqi National Alliance list performed exceedingly poorly - and al Lami himself barely registered votes in the open list system - while sharp questions about the abuse of institutional power and the independence of state institutions will not soon fade. The moment of truth for Iraq will come if Allawi edges out al Maliki, or if the latter wins a narrow victory but cannot assemble a governing coalition due to the considerable animosity he has generated among his political rivals. Will he peacefully accept the rotation of power? Iraqis and outside analysts have watched nervously over the last few years as the prime minister centralised power within his office. His warning, pointedly issued as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, that an "illegitimate" electoral result could result in violence further frayed nerves - leading one Saudi newspaper to describe him as "Iraq's Ahmadinejad".
Iraq therefore faces a double-edged test after the elections. If al Maliki triumphs in a narrow election and assembles a coalition that largely reproduces the outgoing government, many Iraqis may feel that the election was a sham, and that democracy is not capable of producing true change. If al Maliki loses, he may not surrender power without a fight - and many of his backers may reject the prospect of being ruled by Allawi, who drew so heavily on Sunni votes. For the United States, which still has over 90,000 troops in the country, the elections have been set up as a crucial turning point before the large scale withdrawal of forces can begin. But the electoral experience has only highlighted the essential irrelevance of the United States to unfolding events. The American military presence provided Washington little influence over Iraq's turbulent politics. The dozens of lists and parties competing for seats in the Iraqi parliament spent much of the campaign competing with one another to be the loudest advocates of Iraqi nationalism and sovereignty. When American officials tentatively intervened in the de-Baathification fiasco, Iraqi politicians turned America's carefully modulated complaints into political dynamite, rushing to loudly denounce foreign interference in Iraqi affairs. It was not an edifying sight to see leading Iraqi politicians declaring General David Petraeus a "Baathist" and General Raymond Odierno, the commander of US forces, openly accusing them in turn of being Iranian pawns. The United States structured its drawdown in order to keep the maximum number of troops in Iraq until after the elections - a schedule touted as a necessity to provide security. But American troops largely stayed out of the way as Iraqis went to the polls: Iraqi security forces and election officials took the lead. The US army's main role was, and remains, as a security blanket - available to restore the peace as a last resort, or perhaps to stand guard against a possible coup or enforce a peaceful transfer of power if al Maliki refuses to leave office.
American analysts, who have a difficult time imagining an Iraq without a large-scale US military presence, are anxiously scanning the political landscape in search of a reason why the United States cannot possibly withdraw its troops. But they miss the wider picture of an Iraqi public which no longer wants or needs their supposedly stabilising role. Whatever the private feelings of Iraqi leaders - many of whom may well fear for their political obsolescence, if not their physical safety, after American troops depart - the electoral campaign has made clear the strong nationalist current in Iraqi politics. No request for an extension of the US presence or a renegotiation of the agreement dictating troops depart by the end of 2012 is likely to be forthcoming. There should be no illusions that the elections will decisively solve Iraq's many problems, even if disaster is averted. The catalogue of challenges following the election remains as daunting as ever. Beyond the fears about electoral fraud or violence, deeper problems remain unresolved. The de-Baathification crisis demonstrated the limits of the independence of state institutions and inflamed Sunni-Shia tensions. Arab-Kurdish conflicts over Kirkuk, the distribution of oil revenues and contracts, and power in mixed areas remain exceedingly dangerous. Refugees and the internally displaced continue to live in limbo, with few prospects of return and reintegration. A battered but resilient insurgency still lingers, able to inflict pain in episodic outbursts of terror. Iran may still seek to use Iraq as a vehicle for confronting the United States should that relationship take a turn for the worse. Corruption, ineffective state institutions, unemployment and an array of social and economic problems continue to fester. The real test for the election will not be who ends up in the prime minister's seat, but whether the new Iraqi Parliament can be more accountable to voters and convince alienated constituencies that politics pays more than violence. Marc Lynch is an associate professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and the editor of Foreign Policy magazine's Middle East Channel.