In the lead up to March 7, machinations that include Iraqi and non-Iraqi players are already beginning regarding government formation.  The main players have shifted since the 2005 elections; this time there are five major blocs that seem to have the best chances.

What is different this time is that each sect is no longer contained within a single list. The former Shi’i United Iraqi Alliance split up into two coalitions. One is the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq led by Ammar al-Hakim, the Sadrist Trend, the National Reform Movement led by the former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmed Chalabi, and the Islamist Virtue Party, as well as independents and small groups. The other is the State of Law Coalition headed by the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which combines the Dawa Party with independents and smaller groups.

On Sunni side, the former Iraqi Accord Front has become the Iraqi Accord (composed of the Iraqi Islamic Party, Iraqi Peoples Gathering, Turkmen Justice Party, and independents). Another group that branched off from the Front is the Renewal List, led Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who is former chairman of the Iraqi Islamic Party. Moreover, the Renewal List has joined the Iraqi National Movement led by the former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, along with Usama al-Nujeifi’s al-Hadbaa Mosul Gathering, Saleh al-Mutlaq’s Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, the National Future Gathering led by Zafer al-Ani, and independents. Both al-Mutlaq and al-Ani were banned from running in the elections by the Accountability and Justice Commission.

For  their part, the Kurds enter this election with two lists: the Kurdish Alliance, consisting of the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani; and the breakaway Gorran (Movement for Change), which has turned out to be a serious competitor.

Observers consider it most likely that the large blocs will determine the shape of the next government.  There are also smaller alliances that hope to be coalition partners, such as the Unity Alliance of Iraq led by Interior Minister Jawad Bolani (which includes the Iraqi Constitution Party and the Awakening Council of Iraq) and the Ahrar (Liberals) Party led by Ayad Jamal al-Din.

Among the major Arab blocs, one common theme is the attempt to avoid being defined as either Islamist or sectarian. Sunni and Shi’i Islamists see it as in their interests to downplay the religious aspect. They are doing so by diminishing the number of candidates who are religious scholars, nominating unveiled women, and avoiding religious discourse without feigning secularism, which is still a dirty word within traditional social circles.

Still, despite the best attempts to show a new, nonsectarian side, several of the blocs retain a conspicuous sectarian tinge: the Iraqi National Alliance is predominately Shi’i as is the State of Law Coalition, despite al-Maliki’s strenuous efforts to incorporate Sunni tribal groups.  The Iraqi National Movement is a bit different in the sense that it has a Shi’i (Allawi) heading a predominately secular Sunni list. The religious side of the Sunni community, on the other hand, is represented by the unabashedly Sunni Iraqi Accord. And the Kurdish lists are dominated by Kurds, with a few Arab candidates on the lists in Baghdad and other governorates outside Kurdistan. The Shi’i (Fayli) Kurds are divided between the Iraqi National Alliance and the State of Law Coalition.

Another common element is that many blocs seem to have agreed to adopt U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign slogan: “change.” Not only are opposition groups repeating this theme, but those currently in government are doing it as well, taking the approach of acknowledging mistakes and promising redress through detailed platforms presented to the voters.

The projected chances of the blocs vary according to surveys conducted by the various groups, but in any case it seems likely that three or more blocs will form the next government and determine who the next prime minister will be.  Until two week before the elections, expectations inclined towards an alliance among the two Shi’i blocs and the Kurdistan Alliance. But things have changed since leaks about negotiations between Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement and Ammar al-Hakim’s Iraqi National Alliance about the feasibility of a coalition that would include their two groups and the Kurdistan Alliance, excluding al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc.

Reports of such a deal have gained credibility following meetings with external players.  Allawi visited Saudi Arabia (meeting with King Abdullah and the Chief of Intelligence) and Iran (meeting with intelligence officials concerned with Iraq). And Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi—a member of Allawi’s list who covets the Republic’s presidency—met with Egyptian leaders.  Such contacts appeared to be a maneuver to pull the rug out from under al-Maliki’s feet and reassure Arab governments, who favor Allawi’s brand of Sunni-Shi’i secularism, by building a bridge between them and Iran.

According to a leading member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the deal would not involve handing the Iraqi premiership to Allawi, but only giving his bloc significant government positions, including perhaps the foreign ministry. The presidency might go to one of the Sunni Arab members of Allawi’s bloc, while the speaker of parliament would go to the Kurds. Among the weaknesses of the reported deal is that it assumes Kurdish approval, which does not yet exist. Such a scenario has become more palatable in Shi’i circles after fears of Baath Party penetration of the political process have evaporated following the banning of dozens of those affiliated to the Baath. In addition, it would meet a pressing Arab demand that has become a condition for Arab state openness towards Iraq.

All coalition scenarios are premature, however, until after the elections, which are expected to produce many surprises. In particular, the adoption of a semi-open list system that allows the voter to select a candidate from within a list might produce many new faces, perhaps more than half of the next parliament.

Salem Mashkour is an Iraqi writer and journalist. He is a candidate in the upcoming elections, running as an independent within the Iraqi National Alliance.