Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi dreams of securing a second term in office, but will have to joust with his predecessor Nouri Al-Maliki for the job. What binds both men is more their unyielding faith and membership of the Shia Islamic Dawa Party, rather than the fact that each has served as head of Iraq's government.
Al-Abadi has served the party since the late sixties, climbing through the ranks until the party's objectionable return made possible by America's invasion of Iraq in 2003. The question of why the two men are embarking upon separate journeys toward the same destination has so far been dodged. The fact that the Dawa Party stood down from the electoral race suggests tacit approval of the ensuing duel between the two. The scorn that Abadi's appointment back in 2014 stirred in Maliki has only swelled as he looks set to do whatever it takes to regain his former title. What is certain is that Maliki can rely unreservedly on the Dawa Party's rank and file, his political lifeblood.
Abadi's efforts to placate members and provide concessionary returns has cost him greater support, and his pandering to militias raised by Maliki has cost him what meagre support he had left. This is not a race between two democratic candidates but a test of Dawa Party loyalty, as a final showdown to elect one power. All of Iraq's prime ministers since 2003 have hailed from the ranks of Dawa and, without exception, each has failed to absorb the lessons of the past. Sectarian favouritism, decentralisation of state control, contested legitimacy and the erosion of the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force are all hallmarks of the rule of Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, Nouri Al-Maliki and, last but not least, Haider Al-Abadi.
The tightrope upon which America has been walking is breaking under the weight of its presence in Iraq. The cost of staying is rising while important objectives remain unmet. The US placed its bets on Abadi to wrestle power back from the Iran-backed special groups that Maliki nurtured and rewarded with immunity. However, the words uttered by US officials imply misplaced confidence in Maliki's former right-hand man. "Very quiet" and "not terribly communicative, but always very straight" was what America's former Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, had to say about Abadi.
The Prime Minister's waning popularity is a fact, but so is Iraqi loathing of Maliki. The latter's popularity receded long before Mosul's fall and the collapse of the Iraqi army. The massacre of unarmed protesters in what is known as Iraq's own "Spring"; patronage; the illegal sale of Khor Abdullah and other raw materials; the cutting of the Kurdish Regional Government's budget; the failure to protect Iraq's border with Syria leaving the door open to foreign fighters; Tareq Al-Hashimi's unlawful arrest; and other facts too long to list, all contributed to this.
Hill advised Maliki to do what few before him tested: "Now and again… turn the other cheek… resist the temptation to come after… adversaries." Yet from day one, Maliki raced opponents to preserve not the Iraqi state but his premiership, former aide Izzat Shahbandar has claimed. These problems alone ought to have disqualified him from the race, but efforts to curb reforms within the electoral commission succeeded, allowing an uncontested Maliki and pro-Iran militia forces to stand.
So what has motivated Maliki's re-election campaign? It is a bit of a puzzle. Could it be fear of assassination or to enjoy impunity, serving precisely the same end? Many may cite Maliki's political romance with Iran, falling short of explaining how a Maliki-ruled Iraq benefits Iran directly (Iran already benefits from the present situation) or how a disenfranchised Iraqi public would approve of Maliki's return to power. Abadi's nomination is simply damage limitation in an effort to keep the failures of the Dawa Party under wraps by sitting him in a high chair and calling him moderate.
Political compromise as a viable solution has long passed, a task in which both Abadi and Maliki have failed. The defeat of the "Islamic State" terrorist group is Abadi's greatest feat to date, but whether his victory can stand the test of time is too early to judge.
Abadi's passion to rule does not burn as brightly as Maliki's. In any case, neither titan has shown true democratic mettle or the will to abolish Iraq's venomous ethno-sectarian quota system.
Additional reporting by Joe Meehan.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.