Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Abadi has faced a difficult situation from the day he entered office in 2014. His latest problem is trying to deal with protests demanding reforms, while juggling the power struggles within his own Dawa party and the State of Law list. To help explain what the premier is going through is Harith al-Qarawee, a fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, and the author of Imagining the Nation: Nationalism, Sectarianism and Socio-political Conflict in Iraq. He can be followed on Twitter
1. Haider Abadi was chosen as prime minister in 2014 over Nouri al-Maliki who was seeking a third term. What happened within Dawa and the larger State of Law list over the decision to back Abadi?
During his eight years as prime minister, Maliki consolidated his personal power within state institutions. He created a constituency and network of support that was relatively independent from the Dawa Party. This was more obvious in his office where he increased his reliance on people attached to him through kinship, rather than history or ideology. As the influence of his son, Ahmed, and his sons-in-law grew stronger, senior members of Dawa Party felt more alienated. This is often cited as the reason why Maliki’s former Chief of staff, Tariq Najm, resigned from this office, to be replaced by a weaker person. During the last Parliamentary elections, Maliki’s son-in-laws won a larger number of seats in Karbala than the senior Dawa member, Ali al-Adib.
In addition, there was a growing tension within the State of Law (SOL) coalition between Dawa senior members who were in the party during its long presence in exile, and “new-comers” such as Hanan al-Fatlawi and Khalaf Abd Assamad, who gained more prominence thanks to their personal attachment to Maliki.
However, those internal strains do not give full explanation for the undeclared split within SOL and Dawa which led to the nomination of Abadi as prime minister. It was obvious that the pressure of the U.S. government to replace Maliki after the shocking fall of Mosul and other major cities in the hands of ISIS, and Sistani’s call for a change in the leadership were important factors. Abadi and other senior Dawa members, such as Walid Al-Hilli, Ali al-Alaq and Ali al-Adib, concluded that the insistence on granting Maliki a third term would jeopardize the party’s chance to maintain the position of prime minister. This position might be the only reason this “elitist” party, which is led by Shi’a laymen rather than a clerical family, remained a key actor in Iraqi and Shi’a politics. This was why they chose to write to Sistani asking his advice, which they already knew before they received his answer. They wanted to refer to a higher ethical authority in order to justify what Maliki would consider a “betrayal” to him, given the fact that SOL won most of its seats because of Maliki’s popularity, outreach and patronage. Interestingly, it was Abadi who first revealed the party’s decision to comply with the Sistani’s instructions.
I should mention also that Abadi and Maliki have different backgrounds that created a distance between them. In exile, they belonged to different wings of the Dawa party. Abadi was part of the UK-based wing which included Mowafaq al-Rubei, Ibrahim Jaafari and Tariq Najm, while Maliki was operating in Syria. Given the decentralized nature of the party’s structure, it was only natural that region-based solidarities became strong over time, sometimes overpassing ideological affinities. Additionally, Maliki came from rural origins and seemed to be more inclined to those who shared a similar social background. Abadi who was born and grew up in Baghdad, came from an urbanized family in Karada. This division was rarely highlighted, but I argue that regional and social backgrounds are significant in shaping political alignments in Iraq.
Maliki accepted Abadi’s premiership, but still thinks he was betrayed and denied his right as the winner in the election. He repeated in his interviews that leaders must not be replaced during the war. Abadi feels that Maliki’s networks within the state are working against him, and Maliki’s alliance with the Iranian-backed militias is impeding his ability to act as an effective leader.
Abadi is facing a strong challenge as he tries not to officially split the SOL, because this will deprive him from the advantage of acting on behalf of the largest coalition in the parliament and the Shi’a alliance. At the same time, he seeks to resist pressures from Maliki, who is still presented as the leader of SOL, and his allies in the coalition and Shi’a paramilitary groups.
2. Abadi announced a number of reforms starting in August in response to a new wave of protests in Iraq calling for better services and ending corruption. How has his program been received and what effect has it had on his political position?
Abadi saw in the protests an opportunity to build his personal constituency and to initiate the desperately needed reforms that became more urgent as a result of the economic crisis and decline in oil prices. It was also an opportunity to be released from the pressures of Maliki and his allies without having to make big concessions to other parties. His first set of reforms were received enthusiastically by protesters to the extent that some carried Abadi’s pictures during Friday's demonstrations that followed their announcement. Many Iraqis liked the idea of having a strong leader who is willing to remove three vice-presidents and three PM deputies in one decision. The apportionment ‘muhassessa’ system is very hated by most Iraqis and is widely blamed for turning the state into fiefdoms of ruling parties. Therefore, a leader who is strong enough to challenge those parties and stop their plundering of state resources would gain popularity. Let us remember that Maliki’s popularity among Shi’as was partly based on his promise to end muhassessa and form a majority government.
However, Abadi’s good days seem to be over. The protesters’ expectations were greater than his ability to deliver. This is not only Abadi’s problem; it is also the protesters’. Abadi needed momentum to make more drastic changes. He needed to keep having what can be claimed as a ‘popular mandate’ to continue his reforms and embarrass reluctant parties. But when the protests lost their momentum, the ‘exceptional’ mandate given to Abadi by parliament was withdrawn.
While it was useful to see the word ‘reform’ entering Iraqi political discourse, it is still unclear the extent to which Iraq’s dysfunctional state can be reformed without having to create further political tensions. Some of Abadi’s decisions, especially the sacking of Vice-Presidents, were not implemented and seemed to be unconstitutional. Now he has to cooperate with parliament and negotiate with major parties to have the 2016 budget passed. If the economic crisis deepens, as can be predicted, Abadi will face more pressure from the street, and might resort to the same language previously used by Maliki in blaming the parliament and its parties for making his task more difficult. But Iraq cannot afford more of the same. Political bickering in the time of economic hardship could be very costly. Therefore, Abadi’s political future will largely rely on the way he will handle the mounting economic pressure and the probable social discontent. There is not much he can do by himself, except in trying to read the political scene rightly and insist on a clear reform agenda that can be supported by the Shi’a clerical establishment and civil society.
3. Today there is talk that the National Alliance that includes the Sadrists, the Supreme Council, Fadhila, the National Reform list and State of Law has split over Abadi as well and the premier is attempting to form a new coalition. Who is on what side in this split and what are your prospects for Abadi’s future?
Some think of the increasing intra-Shi’a divisions as an outcome of competition between Khameni and Sistani, or more precisely, between the revolutionary wing of the Iranian regime and the conservative clerical establishment in Najaf. It is not a secret that Sistani was not happy seeing the Iranian-backed groups controlling the Hashd and turning it into a tool in the hand of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. He does not want to see the state completely hijacked by those groups, which is why he backed Abadi to stand more resolutely in the face of Maliki-[Badr’s Hadi] Amiri-[Asaib Ahl Al-Haq’s Qais] Khaza’ali alliance. The protest movement offered an opportunity to reduce Maliki’s influence and isolate the most radical trends in the Hashd. But Sisitani’s moves are very calculated and they will not convert into an explicit engagement in those political competitions; nor was his support to Abadi unconditional. Abadi’s latest visit to Najaf showed that the clerical establishment is more open to him than it was to Maliki in his last years in office. But Sistani’s reluctance to meet him showed also that Abadi needs to do more to earn the marja’s trust.
Realizing that he does not control SOL, Abadi looked for support from outside the coalition. He tried to use the protesters’ demands to build a personal constituency, but does not seem to have succeeded. Now he faces the choice between strengthening his ties with Maliki’s rivals, especially Moqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim, or trying again to work from within SOL which requires a rapprochement with Maliki. His latest visit to Najaf and insistence that his decision to cancel the positions of Vice-Presidents indicate that he is more inclined to take the first direction.
But would that lead to forming a new coalition? I doubt it. Abadi would prefer to maintain the formal existence of SOL to the end of his current term and work from within the Shi’a alliance. He might become closer to the Sadrists and Fadhila (ISCI usually prefer to be a free rider in such a context). This will give him just enough leverage to face the 50-60 MPs block that is still loyal to Maliki. But in order to strengthen his position further, he will need to improve his relations with the Sunnis and Kurds. This means controlling the Hashd and finding a clear formula to integrate Sunni fighters in the military structure.
As a result of the complications entailed in any major change in the existing coalitions, my guess is that Abadi will not make big ventures. He will move tactically to the degree that he can retain his position and embody the minimum consensus within the Shi’a alliance.