As the final results were made available, it seemed that Iraq had managed its second free and fair election. But the achievement also serves to highlight how far the country has to go. Iraqi politicians do not like losing, and many appear more concerned with their own welfare than the country's. What Iraq has achieved by becoming a democracy cannot be overstated, but it is not an end in itself. Democracy is only useful if a participatory form of government allows disagreements to be settled in a civilised fashion; conversely, it can do more harm than good if the losers take their grievances to the streets rather than admit defeat.
Unfortunately, it seems that this is exactly what the prime minister Nouri al Maliki is trying to do. He did it during the campaign by equating a vote for Sunni candidates as a vote for Baathists. And he is doing it now by insinuating that Ayad Allawi, whose Iraqiyya coalition won the most seats in parliament, is the Trojan horse that the Baathists will ride to power. Neither is correct, but the memories of Saddam Hussein's brutalities are fresh enough to inspire fear in the hearts of many Shiite voters.
Mr al Maliki is desperate after coming in second place. He probably would not survive politically if his Dawa party moves to the opposition. He will be prime minister or nothing. That, however, is a poor excuse for trying to scare Iraqis into restoring him to office. And the prime minister is not the only one clinging to power through fear-mongering. The Iraqi National Alliance (INA), dominated by religious groups and followers of the young firebrand Muqtada al Sadr, engaged in some shameless attempts to shape the election. Ali al Lami, one of the INA's candidates, used the Justice and Accountability commission to ban hundreds of candidates for supposed Baathist connections.
Nor are the apparent victors, the allies of Mr Allawi, above reproach. The vote almost did not happen because of petty brinkmanship on the part of Tariq al Hashemi. The Sunni vice president tried to rig the vote on technicalities, almost unravelling years of careful negotiations and threatening a constitutional crisis. Iraqis have risked and suffered much in the past seven years. Their leaders must finally give them the government they long for and deserve. The stakes are too high for this petty squabbling to continue.