Al-Abadi defeated IS. Why won’t he sweep Iraq’s elections?
BAGHDAD (AP) — During four years in office, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has racked up a list of achievements that would make most politicians envious. He prevailed over an Islamic State insurgency that at its peak controlled one-third of the country. He steered Iraq’s economy through a collapse in global oil prices. And he foiled a Kurdish bid for independence.
And yet, despite that record, a second term is far from assured when Iraqis go to the polls in national elections on Saturday.
With the conventional war against IS concluded, Baghdad is experiencing a relative lull in insurgent-style attacks and many Iraqis are expressing cautious hope for the future.
But the country continues to struggle with an economic downturn sparked in part by a drop in global oil prices, and the country’s most powerful political block is deeply fractured.
The unified Shiite parliamentary block that gave its votes to al-Abadi in 2014 elections is now in pieces, with five factions competing for the popular vote on Saturday.
Al-Abadi has named his list al-Nasr — Arabic for “Victory” — in a clear reference to his military achievements against IS. But another list, headed by the leader of the country’s most powerful Shiite paramilitary group, which fought alongside the Iraqi forces in the war on IS, is also trying to claim the mantle of victory, calling itself al-Fatah — Arabic for “Conquest.”
Still, the victory over IS is far from voters’ minds, while the country’s grim employment situation is at the forefront.
“If you have a job today, you might not have one tomorrow,” said Abdelhadi Mohammed, an upholsterer who left a job last month because he wasn’t receiving his wages.
With two adult daughters still living at home, the 60-year-old Mohammed moved to another workshop an hour and a half away. Thin, soft-spoken, and losing his teeth, he said he would vote “for change.”
“The security is OK,” he said. “The economy needs to improve.”
Under al-Abadi, the government cut public wages as oil prices plunged in 2014; the prime minister avoided mass layoffs and kept the currency afloat by securing support from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
In an address to the nation on the eve of the election, al-Abadi sought to reassure a dispirited electorate that a better future was in store.
“We have passed our ordeals,” he said. “The economy is improving. Oil prices are rising. Investment is coming.”
But voters fault him for failing to reform the country’s vast patronage networks that have drained the private sector of its vitality. Iraq sits near the bottom of global governance indicators.
During his time in office al-Abadi faced waves of anti-government protests. In the summer of 2015, anti-corruption protests mobilized millions of Iraqis in Baghdad and the country’s southern Shiite heartland, parts of the country that would traditionally be al-Abadi’s base. In the summer of 2016 another wave of protests, largely led by influential Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, stormed Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
In both instances al-Abadi appeased his followers by promising sweeping reforms. But al-Sadr — who also commanded fighters in the war against IS and headed a powerful militia that fought U.S. forces in Iraq before that — is now running against him in a campaign focused on eliminating government corruption and other social issues.
Al-Sadr is heading his own list that is likely to capture a considerable share of the Shiite vote, especially in Baghdad’s poorer slums.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is one of Iraq’s most widely respected voices and holds immense sway over the country’s majority Shiite population, has pointedly declined to endorse a political alliance, instead urging Iraqis to withhold their votes from “failed and corrupt” politicians, and especially those that “held positions of responsibility previously.”
Al-Abadi hardly seemed destined for high office when Iraqis went to the polls four years ago. The biggest winner was then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a famously cynical leader who stoked sectarianism to build a Shiite voter base. Al-Abadi, a member of al-Maliki’s Dawa party, won his seat in parliament on al-Maliki’s coattails.
But the fall of Mosul to IS and the security and political crisis that followed forced Maliki to give up his post, and his party offered al-Abadi the position.
With the backing of both al-Sistani and the United States — a key Iraqi ally — al-Abadi inherited a country in desperate crisis.
Steadily, and with support from the U.S. and Iran, who flooded the country with munitions, supplies and advisers to support ground forces in the war against IS, al-Abadi rebuilt the country’s security forces, stabilized the fronts and pushed back against the militant group.
Then, with Mosul recaptured last year, he faced down a bid for independence led by the country’s Kurdish region’s then-President Maasoud Barzani. Instead of recognizing the results of Barzani’s referendum, Abadi ordered Iraqi forces to take back territory it disputes with the autonomous region, including the oil-city of Kirkuk.
But with his focus on governing, he made little time for campaigning, said analyst Ahmad al-Abyad, leaving him at a disadvantage as elections approached.
“He must change his style from employer to leader,” al-Abyad said.
Holding a Ph.D. in electric engineering, al-Abadi has the charisma of a technocrat, and he has struggled to translate his achievements into enthusiasm in the polls.
This has left him vulnerable in a race that is less about substance and more about “brands,” said Harith al-Qarawee, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
His chief opponents among the country’s Shia parties are charismatic leaders with large voter bases built on years of loyalty and patronage.
Former Prime Minister al-Maliki is heading his own State of Law list that enjoys a close relationship with Iran. If al-Maliki’s State of Law joins forces with al-Fatah, which also enjoys considerable support from Iran, to take more seats in parliament than al-Abadi’s list, al-Abadi is unlikely to be named to the premiership again.
“Iran refuses to support al-Abadi for a second term,” said a senior member of the State of Law list, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
In total there are 329 parliament seats at stake, with nearly 7,000 candidates from dozens of political alliances.
But even if al-Abadi forms the largest coalition, likely with al-Sadr’s list, it is not certain he will be named prime minister.
“We want a strong prime minister, a prime minister who can take decisions,” said Sabah Mohsin, a candidate on al-Sadr’s list.