Iraq’s next leader?
Disappointed by the impotence of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, the country’s Shia groups are in search of a new political leader, writes Salah Nasrawi
With the vote only days away, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s prospects for re-election look dim, and the country’s Shia parties, which together are poised to win the most seats in parliament, have started looking for a challenger to the incumbent leader.
Al-Maliki, who is seeking a third term in office, is in trouble as Iraq is teeming with problems. Many blame him for the country’s sectarian violence, political turmoil and economic deadlock and are eager to see a new prime minister in place.
For the time being, there is no frontrunner in Iraq’s elections, scheduled for 30 April, as several Shia politicians have been vying for the powerful position which also includes the key post of commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
The hopefuls, who include former ministers and party leaders, aren’t saying much publicly about their candidacies, but privately they have been active in seeking political support and building alliances.
However, a popular Shia provincial governor has recently emerged as a lead candidate to succeed Al-Maliki, who has been in power for eight years.
On Sunday, the Al-Ahrar Bloc, which is affiliated to the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, said it was considering fielding Ali Dawai, the governor of the southern oil-rich province of Maysan, against Al-Maliki.
Dawai is Iraq’s most popular government official. He is known for his hardwork in a country ranked as having one of the most dysfunctional governments in the world.
In a country that has had no functioning president for more than a year, where parliament rarely meets, where politicians spend most of their time abroad, and where public officials live on graft, Dawai has been an exception to the rule.
He was first elected governor for Maysan in 2010 and was re-elected in 2013 for a second term after he managed to turn Amara, the provincial capital, from being one of Iraq’s most impoverished towns into an outsized and prosperous city.
Under his rule, Amara, formerly the “city of the oppressed,” has enjoyed good public services including security, electricity, education and healthcare.
Dawai has launched new projects for streets, schools, houses, luxury hotels, bridges and buildings that have changed the landscape of the city.
Admirers say Dawai, known as Mr Clean in a country which is rife with corruption, offers a rare example of how Iraq’s vast oil resources could be put to people’s benefit.
Born in the impoverished marshlands of the Maysan province in 1965, Dawai is a university graduate with a degree in Islamic studies. Little is known about his activities during the rule of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, and he seems to have little public service background.
Pictures posted by his supporters on social networks show him wearing a blue workman’s overall. In some pictures he is seen sleeping on the floor of his office covered by a coat.
Many in Maysan call Dawai the “Guevara of the Poor” after the legendary Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara.
However, Dawai is considered to be an outsider to national politics, and there are questions as to whether he will have enough support from other Shia groups to enter the race against Al-Maliki.
Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, a Shia politician has been chosen as the country’s prime minister in line with the post-Saddam political process that has empowered Iraq’s Shia majority.
This year’s election has largely been characterised as a referendum on Al-Maliki, who has been facing charges of sectarianism, inefficiency and authoritarianism.
Critics point to Al-Maliki’s heavy-handed style of governance and his efforts to make changes to the political process that seem to benefit him and his party.
Even Shia politicians and clergy have deplored Al-Maliki, who has shown himself to be incapable of managing the political and the security portfolios or stopping the country’s unrelenting violence.
Central to this deep-seated sense of failure has been Al-Maliki’s inability to achieve the kind of national reconciliation that would bring peace and stability to the deeply divided nation.
His inability, or unwillingness, to craft a credible national security strategy and build all-inclusive armed forces has served to reinforce Sunni suspicions and consequently insecurity in the war-torn country.
Under Al-Maliki’s rule, reforms went undone, roads and electricity remained unavailable, and children were left without proper schools. Meanwhile, politicians and officials in his administration are thought to have taken bribes worth billions of dollars.
Dawai’s possible candidacy has rattled the Al-Maliki re-election campaign. The pro-Al-Maliki media have been attacking him as a Saddam crony.
On Sunday, Al-Maliki travelled to Amara where he hurled campaign salvoes against Dawai.
“It is sad that a province such as Maysan, so rich in oil and agriculture, has most of its schools built of mud bricks,” he told a crowd of supporters. To lure undecided voters, Al-Maliki promised to provide 15,000 jobs in the government and the armed forces for Maysan residents and to build new schools and houses in the province.
There have been no opinion polls on how Iraqis intend to vote in this month’s election, but various estimates show that Al-Maliki’s bloc, the State of Law Alliance, is losing ground to the two main Shia contenders, the Al-Ahrar Bloc of the Sadrists Movement and the Citizen Bloc of Ammar Al-Hakim’s Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council.
Al-Maliki seems to have lost the confidence of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who is widely seen as being the moral force that helped create and save the patchwork Shia-led administration following Saddam’s ouster.
Al-Sistani has been showing increasing signs of dissatisfaction with Al-Maliki and has reportedly been refusing his request for an audience for several months.
Al-Sistani does not speak in public, but his representatives have voiced concerns over increasing corruption and mismanagement by Al-Maliki’s government, which has given a bad name to Shia rule in Iraq.
On Monday, Al-Sadr met with Al-Sistani, the first such meeting between the two clerics for some time, in what appeared to be an attempt to receive the Ayatollah’s blessing on the Al-Sadr Bloc.
Following the meeting, Al-Sadr’s office said Al-Sistani had stressed the need to combat sectarianism and corruption and to provide security and services. “He stressed the need to elect the best and the most efficient [candidate],” it said. “This is the only way for change.”
Such remarks have certainly hurt Al-Maliki’s campaign, but can only benefit Al-Sadr, who has vowed to deny Al-Maliki a third term.
Other Shia politicians have also joined the anti-Al-Maliki chorus.
“If we get the confidence of the Iraqi people, we will not give the post of prime minister to failed politicians,” said Baqir Al-Zubaidi, head of the Citizen Bloc. “Authoritarianism and political obstinacy have resulted in unmeasurable losses,” he said.
Even Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, a close political ally of Al-Maliki who is running on a different ticket, blasted the prime minister’s attempts to get re-elected.
“Iraq is a factory of leaders, and it cannot be defined by one bloc or one man,” he told a campaign meeting.
Ahmed Chalabi, the veteran Shia politician who has long aspired to be Iraq’s leader, ridiculed Al-Maliki on Facebook for his handling of the insurgency in Fallujah.
Al-Zubaidi, Al-Jaafari and Chalabi are believed to be frontrunner contenders to Al-Maliki.
Iraq’s most prominent Sunni politician and the speaker of the parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi also reiterated his bloc’s rejection of Al-Maliki’s attempts to stay in power.
“He is the maker of crises,” he told an election rally in his hometown of Mosul on Monday. “We say that there will be no third term under any circumstances.”
The Iraqi media have reported that the Sadrists, the Supreme Islamic Council, the main Kurdish parties and Al-Nujaifi’s Motahdoon Bloc have been discussing forming an alliance against Al-Maliki.
The key question remains, however, of how smooth the process of picking Iraq’s next prime minister will be after this month’s elections.
No single political group is expected to win the majority of the seats needed to form a government, and this will likely require coalition-building through a lot of horse-trading as was the case in the previous elections.
In 2010’s inconclusive elections, the leaders spent about ten months of hectic negotiations before they reached an agreement on a coalition government.
With Iraq’s three main communities further divided this time round, the formation of a coalition government could well drag into the end of this year or even into next year.
Until then, Iraq’s next prime minister will remain a mystery.