Despite Newsweek’s astonishing cover story announcing “Victory at Last,” the results of the Iraqi election could destabilize the country, as they did five years ago.

In 2005, the disaffected Sunnis boycotted the vote and resorted to violence during and after the long interregnum in which Iraqi factions bickered and bargained to form a government. Burned by under-representation in the Iraqi parliament as a result of their boycott, the Sunnis participated this time around. So everything should turn out better, right? Not likely.

Despite the veneer of multi-ethno-sectarian election groupings, Iraqis still vote mostly along ethno-sectarian lines. A foreign power imposing a foreign system of democracy at gunpoint will always have several major problems in a country such as Iraq. All of these have to do with underlying societal forces that undermine the superstructure of democracy, rendering it artificial.

The first is that history shows that democracy is most likely to survive in countries that have reached a certain economic level and have thus developed a powerful middle class. Iraq--the victim of the most grinding economic sanctions in world history, three devastating wars since 1980, and ethno-sectarian rebellion as far back as the eye can see—has seen its economy plummet past the point where democracy is likely to prove sustainable.

Second, Iraq, since becoming independent of British rule, has largely been ruled by a series of dictators, the latest of which was Saddam Hussein. As demonstrated by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s invocation of his title as Commander-in-Chief of Iraqi security forces and his demand for an electoral recount (even before the official results were announced), Iraq’s political culture is still one of threats, intimidation, and accusation. This is a fact that can’t be changed just by holding a few elections.

Third and most important, the underlying ethno-sectarian fissures in the country render a successful federal system of government almost impossible. Such a system requires close cooperation between the national, provincial, and local levels, which is very difficult when groups fight for power at all levels on an ethno-sectarian basis. A very loose and more decentralized confederation might be a better form of government for a fractured Iraq.

The results of the recent election indicate a very close race between Prime Minister al-Maliki’s faction, which was supported mainly by Shi’a, and Ayad Allawi’s group, which was primarily backed by Sunnis. Since the majority Shi’i vote has been split, it is possible that Allawi could try to form the next government. If that happens, the Shi’a and the Kurds—long oppressed by the minority Sunnis—might anticipate that recurring, and they could react violently.

If instead al-Maliki ends up trying to form a government, then the Sunnis could again feel politically marginalized, reigniting their insurgency. Also, returns indicate a strong showing by the anti-American radical Shi’i Muqtada al-Sadr, which could also cause a major problem for al-Maliki since he helped repress al-Sadr’s militias in Basra and elsewhere. The Kurds—now less unified—are a wild card.

Lastly, no matter what final coalition ends up controlling the Iraqi government, the close election could mean another protracted interregnum before that negotiated grouping gels. The gap could be filled with more ethno-sectarian strife.

Thus, it is too early for the U.S. elite’s self-congratulation that democracy has finally been solidified in Iraq. Defeat could yet be snatched from the jaws of victory after U.S. forces leave, and even before that if the latest election is as destabilizing as was the one in 2005.