Nouri al-Maliki's call for an election recount in Iraq causes apprehension among Americans. The current prime minister's allegations of fraud bring to mind the crooked election in Afghanistan, which destroyed any sliver of democratic legitimacy the government of Hamid Karzai had left. The American people must be wondering whether we are headed down a similar road in Iraq, and if so, what it means.
First, the situations in the two countries are drastically different. In Iraq, there has been no independent confirmation of any election irregularities, and even al-Maliki hasn't provided much evidence. U.N. observers seem to indicate the integrity of the election is intact.
That was not the case in Afghanistan, where independent monitors saw widespread evidence of fraud on the part of Karzai's partisans.
Second, Iraq and Afghanistan are very different countries, with their own religious and tribal fault lines.
The worrisome factor in Iraq is that the latest election may harden the ethnic and religious divides that threaten to tear the nation apart. Results reported so far indicate that al-Maliki, a Shiite Arab with ties to religious parties, finds himself in a dead heat with Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and former interim prime minister who has reached across the religious divide to appeal to Sunni Arabs.
One count has al-Maliki winning in six provinces, particularly the oil-rich and Shiite-dominated south and central regions of the country. Allawi is ahead in five other provinces, including those controlled by the Sunni minority. Of the 325 seats in parliament, al-Maliki's coalition is in on track to win 90 and Allawi's group is ahead for 87, though Allawi seems to be leading in the overall popular vote. Neither group could, by itself, assemble the 163 seats necessary to form a government.
That foretells a protracted negotiation before any government can be seated. It took five months for politicians to cut a deal after the 2005 election.
In the meantime, the greatest worry may be that if Allawi's bloc gets cut out of power, the Sunni Arabs, who boycotted the last election, could return to the insurgency. Al-Maliki already has accused Allawi of harboring former Baathists, the party of Saddam Hussein, in his coalition. Saddam, a Sunni, ruthlessly repressed Shiites during his rule. Shiite clerics are signaling that they never would accept a government led by Allawi.
This does not bode well for a peaceful resolution of Iraq's political divisions, and that, in turn, could complicate the U.S. withdrawal.