Even then, the political lists have the opportunity to switch their support away from Maliki or whoever else is leading the largest bloc. What matters most is the number of votes that the aspiring premier can secure when parliament gathers to ratify the prime minister. If he succeeds in getting 163 votes or more, the prime ministerial candidate is appointed. If he gets less than 163, the president passes the baton to the head of the second-biggest coalition (as he sees it) and a new 30-day deadline is set. One might ask oneself: what are the relative advantages of going first versus going second? Does an invitation to take the first shot at government formation represent a potential trap at worst and a hazardous proposition at best?
We may rest assured that all these thoughts have been going through Maliki’s mind since the polls closed on 7 March, if not before. Now the issue is no longer academic. Maliki’s challenge is to hold his 143 or so supporters together, and at the same time to secure the backing of two other groups of allies. The first is the Kurdish-led lists, whose conglomeration of 57 seats would seal the deal for Maliki or could join with Iyad Allawi and other inveterate opponents of Maliki to push them just over the 163-mark. Recognizing their pivotal position, the Kurdish leadership will take a tough negotiating position and will probably hold Maliki in suspense about their eventual alignment until the very last moments of government formation. Though it may be hard for the Kurds or Allawi’s predominately Sunni Arab Iraqiyah movement to countenance an alliance, both sides know that nothing is impossible in Iraqi politics and they recognize the leverage they will gain from keeping the prospect alive.