Shiite Alliance Leads Count in Iraq Elections

Early returns indicate the main Shiite party in Iraq received a majority of the vote in Baghdad, but Sunni Arabs are claiming last week's parliamentary elections were fraudulent. Renee Montagne talks to Nathan Brown, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And for a further look at the partial election results in Iraq, we turn now to Nathan Brown. He's a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Good morning.

Mr. NATHAN BROWN (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: It's not exactly a surprise that the Shiite alliance is leading in the results.

Mr. BROWN: No, it's not a surprise that they're going to be the largest party. They're probably doing a little bit better than some people expected, and also the whole idea of what your expectations are vary from one party to another. So the Sunni party's expected to do far better than most outside observers thought that they would, and they're acting very disappointed.

MONTAGNE: Now the Bush--I mean, well, some say it's impossible for Shiites to win such a number of votes in Baghdad, as in there aren't enough voters there.

Mr. BROWN: Well, the problem is, we don't really know exactly what the ethnic and sectarian breakdown of Baghdad is. We don't have a reliable census. The results that have been reported don't really seem to be out of whack with people's expectations, or I would say, the more neutral people's expectations or from what we saw in previous elections. So my guess is that they're fairly sound, but there's certainly going to be an awful lot of ground for complaints because, again, we just don't know what the ethnic and sectarian breakdown of the city is.

MONTAGNE: Now the Bush administration is banking on this election to unify the country, to diminish the insurgency, and the hope is to draw down US forces. There's always been concern expressed, and I'm wondering what you think now that the outcome could instead be divisive, actually have the opposite effect.

Mr. BROWN: Well, that certainly seems to be happening so far, but it's still not completely clear where it will go. What the Bush administration, I'm sure, would have liked to have seen would have been a far better performance by parties that cut across ethnic and sectarian divisions, especially that of Ayad Allawi. He's a former prime minister, and he did much more poorly than I think the Bush administration would have liked. That means that attention will have to go to forming a coalition, and I think the Bush administration will lean fairly heavily on the Iraqi leadership to form a very inclusive, very broad-based government trying to pull some of these parties in. But the initial signals from these Sunni parties is very, very negative in questioning the legitimacy of the results, so that will be a very difficult process.

MONTAGNE: Than saying that they might refuse to even participate in this parliament.

Mr. BROWN: Yes, calling for a recount, attacking the election commission itself, which usually gets pretty high marks from outside observers, and so on.

MONTAGNE: Whatever the final results, the Shiites will need to form a coalition, most probably in order to get the two-thirds majority in parliament that they would need to put together a government. What would this...

Mr. BROWN: They don't need a two-thirds majority to form a government, only to elect a president. After that, they probably could, if these results hold up, come very close to putting together a majority coalition just to rule the country on a day-to-day basis.

MONTAGNE: And that majority coalition, what would you expect it to look like?

Mr. BROWN: Well, that's the big question: Will this Shia list be able to get 50 percent plus one of the seats in the assembly, in which case they won't need any partners whatsoever. If they get under that, they will have to find one other partner, and the fact is, they don't have an awful lot of friends. The Kurds are a little bit upset with them over the previous government's performance. The Sunni coalition--or the Sunni lists are in a bad mood. So my guess is, again, when the Bush administration comes in and presses them to form a broad-based coalition, that will probably be the best way for them to try and get a fairly disparate group of other parties on board.

MONTAGNE: Well, could you give us the briefest of answers to the question: What might this process of forming a new Iraqi government look--when will it likely end? How long will it take?

Mr. BROWN: It could take an awfully long time, because they need to put together the two-thirds coalition to elect the president before they can even start. So we need a complete results. We need two-thirds of the parliament to agree on a presidential candidate and then they can start. So we may be looking into January and even February.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. BROWN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Nathan Brown is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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