"Both of them tried to play the same music – to revive Iraqi nationalism," says Mustafa Alani at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, adding that Iraqis are tired of religious parties. "That is why both Allawi and Maliki won a high percentage of the vote, because even Maliki tried to detach himself from the religious groups."
Allawi's alliance cut across sectarian lines, winning 91 seats to Maliki's 89, but neither won the outright majority required to form a government.
"You could argue that Sunnis and Shiites both want a strong state with a secular ideology, but they are voting for different parties to deliver it," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq specialist at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.
While Allawi, as the winner, would normally get first dibs on forming a government, Maliki has challenged that right. So both leaders are jostling to ally with other parties that will give them at least 163 seats in parliament – and the right to lead Iraq.
Whoever takes the helm will shape the future of Iraq's nascent democracy. It will also help determine how Baghdad addresses tensions with the Kurds, who seek to expand their autonomy to include the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and a greater share of oil profits.