Abadi must save his party before he can save Iraq

Abadi must save his party before he can save Iraq
Analysis: Iraq's prime minister faces political turmoil ahead of next year's election, but with a string of recent successes he may yet survive, writes Gareth Browne.
5 min read
03 November, 2017
Abadi faces serious challenges within his own party [Anadolu]

First Mosul, then Kirkuk. Iraq has never seen a prime minister as popular as Haider al-Abadi.

Currently riding a wave of nationalism, Abadi is one of very few politicians in the country with support from all sides. Yet, for all his popularity, there is still a significant chunk of both the Dawa party and the State of Law Coalition that views Haider Al-Abadi as a threat, and would rather see him gone.

And should former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, or one of his loyalists, run in next year's elections against Abadi - as has been frequently hinted - the party and coalition currently governing Iraq could face a split.

Perhaps the challenge facing the State of Law coalition is not too dissimilar to 2014 and the aftermath of the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State group. It was this that ultimately forced Nouri al-Maliki to resign, but there was by no means consensus on whether that was the right path to take. A good number of MPs wanted Maliki to stay in office.

This opposition from within Dawa and State of Law may have died down at times, such as during the immediate aftermath of Mosul's recapture, but it never entirely disappeared.

Probably Abadi's most vociferous critic in parliament and the media is Hanan Fatlawi, a die-hard Maliki supporter. Fatlawi has even gone so far as to compare Abadi to Saddam Hussein - particularly interesting given that the Fatlawi family's former Baathist affiliations are well known.

In 2014, even some of Maliki's most ardent loyalists understood that his remaining in office served as the greatest threat to the State of Law coalition staying in power. By holding on to the prime minister's office, they were pragmatic enough to compromise on ideological purity and put Abadi in the tob job.

Perhaps the more likely option is that Abadi, not Maliki, will split away from the State of Law coalition. This would be dependent on a non-competitive agreement, as one senior Dawa member told The New Arab: "Dawa and State of Law are pragmatic, they won't do anything that might risk them losing the prime minister's office."

A new electoral list, separate from State of Law, would allow Maliki to form a far broader coalition with the likes of Muqtada al-Sadr's al-Ahrar bloc and Ammar al-Hakim's new Hikma party. It could even include the secular anti-corruption activists who have launched frequent protests in Baghdad.

Such a list might see Abadi lose as much as a third of MPs in the State of Law coalition, but these would be the Maliki loyalists who have criticised Abadi at almost every opportunity anyway, having made frequent attempts to bring down Abadi's government since he replaced Maliki in 2014.

More importantly, such a split might enable Abadi to join with Ayad Allawi's National Alliance coalition, a secularist grouping which garnered a higher vote share than the Maliki-led State of Law coalition in 2010. Such a coalition would likely provide Abadi with a commanding majority, and might even enable him to form a government without Maliki's support.

Herein lies the advantage of the recent proliferation of political parties in Iraq. An outright majority for any one party is virtually impossible, and parties are now forced to cooperate and form coalitions if they want to get anywhere near the most important seats of government.

As one senior Dawa member put it: "there is no '-ism' driving things."

Another potential coalition partner could be the Kurdish PUK, given Abadi's deal with the Talabani clan immediately before last month's Kirkuk operation. There is clearly a willingness within at least some parts of Kurdistan's second largest party to deal with Baghdad.

How prevalent they might be in the next Iraqi parliament remains to be seen, as their deal with Baghdad has been labelled "treachery" by some in their heartlands.

With Talabani's base gradually leaking to the likes of Gorran and Barham Salih's new party, both standing on a platform of "reform", it remains to be seen how significant a vote share they will be able to garner.

If Abadi is forced to invite Maliki's list into his government, he can expect it to cost him several cabinet portfolios. Maliki will be hungry for a more powerful seat at the table than his current role as vice-president - a largely symbolic position that Abadi has tried to abolish.

The other potential spoiler comes in the shape of Hadi al-Ameri and the Badr organisation. Ameri heads the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an Iran-backed, hundred-thousand strong umbrella grouping of militias mobilised to help fight back against IS.

Many of these militias remain popular in the Shia community, and Ameri came very close to becoming a minister in Abadi's last cabinet shuffle. His popularity is unignorable, but the extent to which Badr and Ameri are able to convert this popularity into votes, especially at the cost of the other (particularly for Abadi), remains to be seen.

With crude oil now at $60 a barrel - its highest price since June 2015 - and Iraq's recent seizing of oilfields near Kirkuk, the Iraqi treasury could potentially find itself with billions more in revenue than expected in the most recent budget.

With the country almost at peace for the first time in two years, and the economic situation seemingly showing signs of improvement, Abadi is experiencing something of a perfect storm. If he can heed off the challenges posed from within his own Dawa party, he could come out of next year's elections with an exceptionally strong mandate.

His cross-sectarian government could also keep off creeping Iranian influence to steer Iraq through a precarious post-IS period.

If a week is a long time in politics, then the next six months or so will feel like an eternity for Abadi.

Gareth Browne is a freelance reporter formerly based in Erbil. He has been reporting from the front lines in the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group and recently visited Baghdad to study the legacy of the US-led invasion. 

Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.