CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Iraq's dramatic election was a prelude to the real test: the political wrangling to determine the country's next prime minister.

This is the way it goes in “Iraqracy,” as Gen. David Petraeus dubbed the county’s unique political system. In the weeks to come, Iraq’s flaws, strengths and identity will be revealed as the country’s fragile rule of law is strained, perhaps to the breaking point, to determine the outcome of the vote.

U.S. headlines have focused on the triumph of Iyad Allawi’s coalition, a political bloc of nationalist Sunnis and secular Shiites, with a former CIA asset as head of the party. But Allawi’s win in the March 7 election does not guarantee that he can govern Iraq or return as prime minister, a job he held in 2004-2005.

In fact, Allawi won only a slim plurality in the elections. His coalition won 91 seats in the National Assembly, two more than the second place winner, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. The magic number needed to form a ruling coalition is 163. The numbers show that Allawi must convince 72 winners from other parties to join his coalition while Maliki must woo 74 allies.

Both political leaders are in an uphill struggle to form a ruling coalition, but even these numbers are not a sure thing. Iraq’s judiciary has already taken steps that could change the outcome.

Stung by his loss, Maliki rejected the official tally and invoked his status as commander-in-chief as he warned of violence. Maliki’s top aide, Ali al-Adeed, was more explicit when he said Iraq’s Shiites would not accept the legitimacy of Allawi’s victory. Maliki’s warnings prompted an unusual on-the-record observation from a senior U.S. embassy official, Gary Grappo, who acknowledged that Maliki’s coalition would “take advantage of all means at their disposal to try to eke out a victory.”

While Grappo went on to express confidence that Maliki and his allies would work within the judicial system, the system has been far from neutral, both before and after the election. Power in Iraq centers around personalities rather than institutions. As long as Maliki remains in office, he can manipulate government resources to press his advantage.

On the day before the election results were announced, the Supreme Court interpreted an ambiguous constitutional clause in a way that gives Maliki an edge. While the constitution stipulates the largest bloc in parliament gets the first chance to form a government, it is unclear whether the largest bloc is determined by the vote or groups that merge after the election. The judges ruled that the later is permissible, which means if Maliki can convince smaller blocs to join him in the next few days, he can deny Allawi the first shot at forming a government.

At the same time, another challenge is brewing to undercut Allawi’s victory. A few weeks before the election, a Shiite-controlled official body banned more than 500 candidates, many of them Sunnis, on often sketchy charges of links to the outlawed Baath Party. One of the banned candidates was a popular politician on Allawi’s list. A judicial panel was the final arbiter of the ban and while the list was reduced to less than 200, the judges were widely seen to have been pressured to support the ban. Now, the names of another 50 politicians are on the banned list. At least one slated to get the axe is a member of Allawi’s coalition, and there could be more, which would cost him the slim plurality and give Maliki the advantage.

The prime minister has shown he will use the tools of incumbent power. He has reportedly released long-held prisoners loyal to the Sadrist political movement. The Sadrists ran for office in a rival Shiite bloc and Maliki will need their support to challenge Allawi’s victory. In addition, the McClatchy newspapers report that at least four Sunni Muslim candidates on Allawi’s ticket are under investigation by the prime minister’s security forces. This is hardball politics, Iraqi style.

"Iraqracy" is a unique and complicated system where the losers still have the option of returning to violence. In the accepted definition, it is a system “that is not yet wholly democratic, but in which political leaders cannot ignore the electorate.”

What message did the electorate send? The vote was widely interpreted as a rejection of religious politics, symbolically, a realignment of power, with the possibility for power-sharing with the marginalized Sunni Arabs. Allawi’s secular message resonated with voters who say they are weary of sectarian politics that has done little to turn on the lights, water or open up more jobs.

Allawi could not have done as well as he did without the surprising support of Shiite voters, especially in the southern provinces. But he still has the toughest road ahead. He has to forge a political alliance outside the one he has assembled. He must convince suspicious Kurds and Shiites that he is willing to share power, make concessions and give them real roles in government. He has to do all this without the advantages of government resources and institutions.

His success or failure will add to the definition of "Iraqracy" and what it means to win the popular vote.

Deborah Amos is an editor-at-large for GlobalPost. She is currently a Goldsmith Fellow at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. She covers Iraq for NPR News and is the author of a newly published book, "The Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile and the Upheaval of the Middle East."

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