Haider al-Abadi and Iraq’s Sunnis need each other badly

There is enough time before the elections for Abadi to woo both Sunnis and Shias.
Tuesday 08/05/2018
Uphill struggle. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi attends an election campaign event with supporters in Kirkuk, on April 28. (Reuters)
Uphill struggle. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi attends an election campaign event with supporters in Kirkuk, on April 28. (Reuters)

A close examination of the election map in Iraq and the fierce political competition for representation inside each ethnic bloc leads to the inevitable conclusion that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi crucially needs the Sunni vote and the Sunni community crucially needs Abadi.

Abadi’s interests and those of the Sunni bloc intersect in an unprecedented manner, offering an important opportunity to change the political equation in Iraq. Either Abadi buys the loyalty of the Sunni bloc in the coming elections or the Sunni bloc buys his loyalty.

As a candidate, Abadi can genuinely open up to the Sunni bloc and end the vicious circle of discrimination against the Sunnis in exchange for their vote. The Sunni bloc can take the initiative and vote en masse for Abadi’s camp and expect a return of the favour since their representatives would be part of Abadi’s coalition and in position to defend the political and social rights of the Sunni community.

Both Abadi and the Sunni bloc suffer from the lack of a wide political base to guarantee victory. As an ambitious leader, Abadi is facing fierce competition from within the Shia environment. He desperately needs a stronger popular base for a clear political advantage.

However, to come to an alliance with Sunni communities, Abadi must send clear messages and make frank promises in addition to initiating practical measures that build trust before Election Day. He must prove to the Sunnis that he is different from other Shia leaders who have sold the Sunnis the mirage of egalitarianism and partnership since 2003.

Abadi is aware of the importance of opening to the Sunni bloc but he has yet to realise that this move cannot simply be an election tactic based on his government’s “achievement” of ridding Sunni regions of the Islamic State. It must be based on a national strategy of building for the future. By necessity, that strategy must dismantle discriminatory practices against the Sunnis, end sectarian policies and implement justice and equality measures.

Unfortunately, Abadi apparently believes that opening to the Sunni bloc would damage his popularity with Shia voters. At the same time, he refuses to explicitly identify with the Shia sectarian dream in fear of damaging his image as a nationalist leader and his political project. He therefore ended up with a “dual policy” of profound partiality to the Shias and apparent courtesy to the Sunnis. No wonder he failed to seriously impress either camp.

With the Shias, Abadi is facing competition from the Popular Mobilisation Forces and former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who harp on the victimisation of Shias while traditional Sunni forces harp on the victimisation of Sunnis.

Abadi could not tell both camps that a new mandate would mean the eradication of the “victimisation mentality” and convince either camp of the necessity of his project of an “egalitarian state.”

Abadi is trying to reconcile the concepts of “a Shia majority” and “national partnership.” The ideas do not mix and inevitably reproduce the current political crisis in Iraq.

Becoming prisoner of his vision, Abadi fails to realise that a genuine overture to the Sunnis within the context of a comprehensive nationalist pre-election project can win him Shia support as well because they will see him as a daring patriot capable of producing a strong national majority for post-election battles.

Abadi has two choices. He can compete within just the Shia community, where the race is fierce. Even in the scenario of a landslide victory for his coalition, his position remains shaky because he must bargain with opponents in the Shia camp to win another mandate as prime minister and form a new government.

Abadi’s second choice is to take daring and pragmatic steps before the elections to restore the dignity and confidence of the Sunnis. They could be symbolic steps carrying genuine messages of better things to come addressed to the Sunni communities, the overall Iraqi public and the international community. Doing so would reinforce Abadi’s popularity with the Sunnis, win over the voters who are still hesitant and gain a landslide victory in Sunni communities.

For this to happen, Abadi’s coalition must convince Sunni voters that its candidates are real partners capable of replacing the traditional Sunni elite. It is not an easy task because the Sunni opposition can be fierce. Sunni leaders, such as Iraqi Vice-President Osama al-Najafi in Mosul and his ally in Anbar, Khamis al-Khanjar, have formidable means and popularity.

However, Abadi, with a promise to transform the “Shia grip” on Iraq towards a better understanding of diversity inside Iraq and his intentions to put distance between Iraq and the Iranian regime plus his openness on the Arab world, has a chance to win a comfortable majority of the Sunni vote.

There is enough time before the elections for Abadi to woo both Sunnis and Shias. He must put his finger on the real problems of Iraq. The Sunni communities must no longer feel they are second-class citizens and Shia communities must no longer feel they are victimised by a powerful elite that is manipulating them to preserve its private interests and power.