Abadi’s fortunes in Iraqi elections up in face of Iran-backed rivals

Sistani asked voters not to cast their ballots for politicians 'who are corrupt and those who have failed' in their posts.
Sunday 06/05/2018
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi talks during a campaign rally in Najaf, on May 3. (AFP)
Better odds. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi talks during a campaign rally in Najaf, on May 3. (AFP)

LONDON - The fortunes of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in the upcoming elections may have increased after the country’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, advised voters to refrain from casting ballots for politicians “who are corrupt and those who have failed” in their posts.

Sistani’s reference was widely understood to be directed at, among others, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Maliki, who heads the State of Law coalition and is campaigning to return to power in the May 12 elections, has been scolded by critics as being responsible for losing a significant part of the country to the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014, primarily due to sectarian policies and corruption.

The collapse of the Iraqi Army in front of ISIS’s advance in Mosul and elsewhere at the time was partly attributed to it having some 50,000 “ghost soldiers” who received salaries but were not physically present to defend the country.

Maliki failure vs. Abadi victory 

Abadi is running an anti-corruption election campaign that boasts of defeating ISIS and preserving the country’s territorial integrity. He named his list the Victory Alliance.

The Iraqi prime minister welcomed Sistani’s speech. “We note in particular (Sistani’s) call for the widest participation in the election and making the correct choice after reviewing the past record of candidates, mainly those who held official positions,” said Abadi in an indirect reference to Maliki.

Sistani said he was keeping an “equal distance” from all candidates and warned against using his name “or any other name that has a special place in the hearts of Iraqis to make electoral gains.”

That comment was understood to be a reference to using the fight against ISIS by the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) for election purposes. The Conquest Alliance, a list that includes top militia leaders and presents itself as the voice of the PMF, is considered to be the party to which Sistani was referring.

Sistani’s speech is likely to have irked both the Conquest Alliance, led by Hadi al-Amiri, and Maliki’s State of Law coalition. The two Shia lists, which are staunchly backed by Iran, are Abadi’s most serious competitors.

Sistani’s views carry great weight among Iraq’s Shia voters and are often treated with public respect by members of other communities. His latest speech seems to give Abadi a better standing in the face of his Iran-backed rivals.

Corruption allegations within the PMF

Ahead of Sistani’s speech, Abadi vowed to investigate corruption allegations within the PMF after the assassination of Qassim al-Zubaidi, who oversaw the finances in the militia’s umbrella group.

Sistani called on voters to support candidates they think have “the ability to implement a realistic programme” to resolve the country’s crises and not cast ballots based on tribal or sectarian affiliations.

This opens the door for Shia voters to vote for non-Shia candidates, although it may be too soon to expect that to become a trend.

In a bid to distance themselves from Sistani’s criticism of corrupt politicians, many electoral lists, including Maliki’s, praised the speech of Iraq’s top cleric.

“According to observers, all the political lists are trying to interpret the speech by suggesting that it does not go against their political directions,” said Ibrahim Saleh, France 24 Arabic correspondent in Baghdad.

“The known and clear aim for this is to avoid losing votes, because in the event that Iraqi voters implement all that has been mentioned in the speech then maybe only a few candidates and electoral lists would be exempt (from criticism).”

It may prove difficult to be sure of who is not corrupt in a country that is ranked the 12th most corrupt by Transparency International. Only 20% of candidates are newcomers, Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission said.

Iraqi commentator Ghalib al-Shahbandar said he expected a “partial” implementation of Sistani’s recommendations by voters and politicians but it would have wider repercussions in future elections.

“We expect [its effect on the] political process to be accumulative,” he told Alhurra Iraq TV.