As Iraq elections loom, Abadi’s coalition is disintegrating

Having the polls together means it is likely that the groups that dominate the national vote will control provincial councils.
February 11, 2018
Increasingly weaker. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks during a ceremony in Baghdad, last month. (Reuters)
Increasingly weaker. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks during a ceremony in Baghdad, last month. (Reuters)

Since announcing in January that local and national elections would both be on May 12, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has faced a series of political disasters, leading many to doubt whether he is charismatic and strong enough to hold his newly created list together before the candidates are tested in the polls.

Abadi harmed his credibility as a unifier after forging a political alliance with the sectarian Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and spending much of the battle for Mosul assuring Iraqis that no militants would field candidates in elections without first disarming. Abadi named his new electoral list the “Victory Alliance,” seeking to capitalise on the perception that he was instrumental in the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS).

However, less than 48 hours after the announcement, the pro-Iran PMF announced it would be splitting from the Victory Alliance and contesting elections separately under its own “Conquest List” against the prime minister. Essentially, by allying with the PMF, Abadi ensured that the group would have grounds to proceed with fielding its own candidates but failed to calculate it would abandon him once it got what it wanted.

A little more than a fortnight later, the incumbent suffered another blow to his prestige when senior Shia cleric Ammar al-Hakim announced he would also be parting ways with Abadi. Hakim, scion of an influential Shia clerical family, declared he would set up his own “Wisdom Alliance” to contest elections against the prime minister, declaring he would try to work with Abadi “for the shared benefit of the country.”

Despite the positive-sounding rhetoric, reports suggest that Hakim threatened to walk out on Abadi soon after the departure of the PMF’s Conquest bloc. As Abadi was unwilling to guarantee better political positions should the Victory Alliance claim victory in May, Hakim decided to weaken Abadi by leaving the list and creating his own.

Aside from Abadi’s position appearing increasingly weaker, criticism has been levelled at the decision to have local and national government elections on the same day. Having the polls together means it is likely that the groups that dominate the national vote will control provincial councils.

This may be problematic as, ordinarily, midterm local elections act as a barometer for the people’s level of contentment with the national leadership. By bringing the votes into synchronicity, the federal government has essentially erased that opportunity and is attempting to consolidate power at both the local and national levels.

With Abadi’s allies abandoning him in droves, it probably came as some relief to him that his rival and former prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, would probably be sidelined in favour of the incumbent. Reports in Arab media said Tehran and Washington were in agreement that another Maliki premiership would be disastrous for their agendas in Iraq and they would, therefore, throw their weight behind Abadi.

However, Abadi cannot rest on his laurels. He may well win the elections with Iranian and American backing but those same backers will ensure that he never has full control over parliament. After all, both Hakim’s Wisdom Alliance and the PMF’s Conquest list are Iranian proxies, with the latter directly armed, funded and backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

As Abadi is about to find out, with such friends, who needs enemies?

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