BAGHDAD — Iraq's provincial elections appear to have given a big boost to the political fortunes of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who once had been seen as weak and ineffectual but who has emerged as a formidable force on the Iraqi political scene.
According to preliminary results released Thursday, a coalition backed by Maliki swept aside Shiite religious rivals to finish first in 9 of the 14 provinces where voting was held, bolstering Maliki's chances of retaining his job when national elections are held later in the year. The results must be certified by international and Iraqi observers in a process expected to take weeks.
The elections are being closely watched in Washington for clues as to whether Iraq is politically stable enough for the United States to start bringing troops home, and Maliki's performance offers encouragement that Iraqis are "ready to rely on the ballot box instead of the bullet," according to Ghassan al-Attiyah, an Iraqi political analyst.
"The elections of 2005 opened the gates to hell," he said. "This election could open the gates to tranquility and stability in Iraq."
But, he said, the results are only preliminary and could change, with 10 percent of the vote still uncounted, leading to potentially destabilizing complaints and challenges of legitimacy.
Moreover, with dozens of political parties contesting the vote in each province, there were no outright winners. Many groups finished within just a few percentage points of one another, setting the stage for protracted political bickering as the factions jockey to form governing coalitions.
Maliki, once seen as just a figurehead, belongs to the Shiite Islamist Dawa Party but cast himself as a secularist in the campaign, fielding a slate of candidates called State of Law and emphasizing the security improvements he oversaw since the surge of U.S. troops in 2007.