BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki reclaimed the lead on Wednesday over secularist challenger Iyad Allawi in results from a March 7 parliamentary election that has been dogged by fraud allegations.
Supporters of Maliki complained of cheating after earlier partial results showed their candidate trailing Allawi in an election so tight it is expected to take months of tough negotiations to form a new government.
But Allawi, who served as prime minister from 2004-5, lost his narrow edge when new data released late on Wednesday showed Maliki’s alliance ahead by some 40,000 votes nationwide.
No matter what the final outcome, Allawi’s strong showing, particularly among minority Sunnis resentful of the dominance of Shi’ite religious parties since 2003, has broad implications for the formation of the next government and stability in the country once U.S. troops withdraw.
The new but incomplete results representing about 83 percent of the vote put the State of Law coalition led by Maliki, a Shi’ite with a law-and-order message, ahead in seven of Iraq’s 18 provinces, including electoral prizes Baghdad and Basra.
Allawi’s cross-sectarian Iraqiya alliance is leading in five provinces. Trailing the front runners are the Shi’ite Iraqi National Alliance (INA) and Kurdish parties which dominate Iraq’s Kurdish north.
It is too early to say who Iraq’s next coalition government will include, and the weeks or months of charged negotiations ahead may become even more fraught if, as the close race suggests, the results are challenged by those who lose out.
Ali al-Adeeb, a close Maliki ally, said earlier on Wednesday the State of Law bloc had been tipped off by election workers that votes were being manipulated in favor of a competitor he declined to name. The bloc has asked for a recount in Baghdad, where Maliki’s lead has steadily narrowed.
“Only when a recount and review is completed can we decide if IHEC’s tally of our votes is accurate or not,” he said. The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) said the count was fair and included multiple checks against fraud.
“The most recent preliminary results show a close race between major lists. That explains their fears and misgivings,” said Karim al-Tamimi, an IHEC commissioner.
IHEC, along with U.N. officials advising them, have played down allegations of fraud, which until now had mainly come from Allawi’s camp. Almost 2,000 complaints have been logged, fewer than in Iraq’s provincial polls in January 2009. “Systemic fraud is virtually impossible,” a Western official said on condition of anonymity, suggesting the sheer complexity of Iraq’s new voting system was itself an obstacle to fraud.
The uncertainty risks exacerbating divisions and fuelling conflict in the crucial weeks and months ahead, particularly if the long-dominant Sunni minority feels the next government does not reflect its interests.
Marginalization of Sunnis has been a major driver of violence since the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003. Sectarian violence exploded in 2006, when politicians took more than five months to form a government.
Support among Sunnis for Maliki, who has tried to market himself as a non-sectarian nationalist, was weakened when he supported a ban on candidates suspected of links to Saddam’s Baath party, including a popular Sunni on Allawi’s list.
Safia al-Suhail, a State of Law candidate, said the bloc was exploring alliances with the INA and the Kurds, whose support may prove pivotal, but said a union with Iraqiya was unlikely.
“If a fairly solid political front were to form against Iraqiya blocking its leaders from a meaningful role in post-election governance, or, worse, should the highly questionable process of de-Baathification be resurrected and exploited further...the domestic situation could still turn rather ugly,” said Wayne White of the Middle East Institute.
In Kirkuk, the disputed province that is a northern oil hub, Allawi has the thinnest of leads over a bloc of Kurdish parties that want to fold Kirkuk into their semi-autonomous enclave.
But the picture in Kirkuk, like the rest of Iraq, could change. IHEC has yet to announce vote tallies for Iraqis living abroad and from ‘special’ voting that included soldiers, police, prison inmates and hospital patients and staff.
Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary, Jim Loney and Rania El Gamal; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Mark Trevelyan