Whatever the outcome of the recent Iraqi parliamentary elections, it is the first poll since US forces left the country in 2009 and as such is a historic moment for Baghdad.

According to official reports, about 60 per cent of the 20 million people eligible to vote turned out to choose new representatives for the 238-seat parliament. While the electoral process looks to be a relative success, for many there is a feeling that the vote will not change the course of a country struggling with sectarian violence and disappointing economic development.

More than 100 parties are competing for seats in Baghdad’s Council of Representatives, but, as with previous elections, the candidates largely ran on sectarian lines. This will likely leave the dominant Shia bloc in a position to pick its choice for prime minister, with the incumbent Nouri al-Maliki the frontrunner. The key question is whether Al-Maliki, or an alternative Shia leader, has the will to bring Sunni and Kurdish representatives into the government in an attempt to unify a deeply divided Iraq.

Al-Maliki’s security forces have lost control of much of the Sunni-majority Al-Anbar province, including the key cities of Ramadi and Fallujah close to Baghdad. Further isolation of Sunnis from decision-making over the next four years could fuel violence in mixed-ethnicity areas in the centre and north of the country.

If large areas of Iraq become ungovernable, it will threaten the viability of projects essential to economic development, including the planned oil pipeline from Basra to Jordan’s Aqaba port. Foreign firms looking to invest or work in Iraq will also be repelled by the growing climate of sectarian violence.

The most important part of the democratic process will happen behind closed doors as the Shia factions attempt to form a ruling coalition to govern for the next four years. If Al-Maliki’s party fails to secure the upper hand, there is a possibility an alternative leader could emerge with the appetite to unify Iraq’s religious and ethnic divides.