In Iraq, many religious Shi’ite Muslims are encouraged by the earliest election results, which have come mainly from Shi’ite areas, and show the main Shi’ite coalition doing very well. But election officials warn not to read too much into the early results, because the picture could shift significantly as more ballots from other parts of the country are counted. The Iraqi system is designed to keep any single group from winning total control over the assembly, and political observers say the bargaining to create a government has already begun.
It is likely to be at least a week before the final picture emerges from Iraq's first free election in more than half a century.
Election officials in Baghdad have released a second batch of results from Sunday's poll, still showing a healthy lead for the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition that includes the country's main Shi’ite religious parties. But election officials warn that no national trend should be predicted from those results, because most of them come from Shi’ite-dominated regions in the south, as well as from Shi’ite neighborhoods in Baghdad.
The electoral commission has not even said how many people turned out to vote on Sunday, so it is unclear what percentage of the ballots have been tallied nationwide. They say the latest batch of results represents 35 percent of polling stations, but that does not necessarily translate into the same percentage of actual votes.
In any case, the Iraqi system has been designed to ensure that no one group can easily gain total control of the transitional National Assembly or the government it will select.
For one thing, the assembly will need to elect a new president and prime minister by a two-thirds majority. Since no single group is likely to win two-thirds of the seats, several competing groups are predicted to strike alliances in order to form a government.
Some reports indicate that behind-the-scenes bargaining has already begun, even before the results are in.
As Shi’ite worshippers head to the Sayed Adris Mosque in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood for Friday prayers, many say they voted for the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shi’ite religious coalition also known as List 169. Some, like 51-year-old Adnan Mohammed Jassim, seem to be reading more into the early returns than election officials would like.
"We have seen it on television,” he said. “ List 169 is dominant here in Iraq."
But other worshippers seem to understand that the Shi’ite group will likely need to make deals with other groups in order to form a government. Imad Khalib al-Muswi is not worried about it.
"I think there will be some bargaining between the parties and lists,” he said. “At the same time, despite this bargaining, the ones elected have to serve the common interests of the Iraqi people. So it is no problem, whether there is bargaining or not. The important thing is that they should be serving the Iraqi people."
Mr. al-Muswi adds that Iraq is made up of many ethnic and religious groups, and he hopes they will one day be able to work together to make the country stronger than it was under Saddam Hussein.
A key question in this election is what voter turnout looked like in the Sunni-Arab-dominated areas, where many Sunni leaders urged a boycott of the poll, and insurgents threatened to kill those who did vote. Some reports have indicated that turnout in those areas was higher than expected, but still very low compared to the Shi’ite south and Kurdish north.
But even if Sunni Arabs are underrepresented in the National Assembly, several Sunni groups have indicated that they will get involved in the political process. The transitional National Assembly's main job will be writing Iraq's new constitution, which also has to be approved by popular vote. The constitution can be vetoed, if voters in three of the 18 provinces reject it by a two-thirds margin. Since Sunni Arabs dominate in three provinces, Sunni leaders have warned that they will exercise that veto power to defeat any proposed constitution that does not satisfy them.
If that happens, the National Assembly would be dissolved, and Iraq would start the process over again with a new election.
Shi’ite leaders have indicated that they will seek Sunni Arab input during the drafting of the constitution, in hopes of avoiding that situation.