19-06-2013 04:54PM ET

Setback for Al-Maliki

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s failure to form key local governments has dimmed his hopes for a third term in office, writes Salah Nasarwi
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has suffered an embarrassing setback in his efforts to regain control of local governments in Baghdad and key Shia-populated provinces, an outcome that could cost the embattled leader his post in next year’s general elections.
Al-Maliki, whose State of the Law List was a key contender in the capital and the Shia-dominated southern provinces in the 20 April polls, failed to win the majority needed to enable him to form most local provincial governments.
The List won 97 of 378 seats on the governorate councils, but this was a sharp drop from the previous combined total of 126.
According to Iraq’s post-Saddam Hussein constitution, provincial elections are held every four years. Iraq’s three autonomous Kurdish provinces will have their own elections in September, while no balloting is planned in the disputed and ethnically-mixed province of Kirkuk.
Voting was suspended in the two Sunni-dominated provinces of Anbar and Nineveh in north and west Iraq for security reasons. Since late December, Sunnis have been waging anti-government demonstrations to protest against their perceived persecution. Their elections will be held on Thursday.
Al-Maliki’s two major Shia rivals succeeded this week in forming local coalition governments in Baghdad and several other southern provinces after reaching agreements with Sunni lists and blocs representing secular and minority groups.
The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), led by Ammar Al-Hakim, and the Sadrist Trend of Muqtada Al-Sadr, Al-Maliki’s two main Shia contenders, snatched 124 seats on the local government councils.
The rest of the seats went to various smaller blocs representing civil forces, the country’s religious minorities and independent candidates.
Iraq’s provincial councils are responsible for nominating the chairpersons of the assemblies and governors who lead the local administrations. They also run local municipality services such as water, electricity, health and housing. Control of senior provincial posts provides space for maneuvering to achieve national-level political objectives.
The anti-Al-Maliki coalitions are significant and are expected to set the political landscape of the violence-torn and sectarian-divided country for the next several months up to the 2014 general elections.
Most importantly, they will give leverage to contenders in next year’s national polls, which many Iraqis hope will bring about a more stable, coherent and efficient government that will be able to end the country’s chronic ethno-sectarian conflict.
The provincial elections were widely seen as a measure of the popularity of Al-Maliki, who has been facing growing opposition from Sunni Arabs and Kurds as well as many Shias. The polls were also seen as crucial for limiting the violence that has gripped Iraq since the last US troops withdrew in December 2011.
Al-Maliki led an aggressive campaign to enlist public support for a ticket that was led by his own Daawa Party and included few other Shia groups allied to him. In defiant statements during the election campaign, he urged his supporters to come out en masse to support his efforts to rescue Iraq from what he described as an “intensive care” situation.
Since the release of the election results on 4 May, Al-Maliki has also tried to cajole smaller lists to join his bloc in coalition governments in several provinces, sometimes by offering bribes and promises of top posts in the central government after next year’s elections.
On Monday, he travelled to his home town of Karbala where his List faced difficulties to set up such a coalition. He was reportedly making a last ditch effort there to build a coalition with smaller blocs to set up the provincial government.
Analysts have suggested that behind Al-Maliki’s hectic efforts to win local elections and form provincial governments lie his ambitions to secure a third term in office despite strong opposition from the country’s Kurds, Sunnis and even some Shias who perceive him as authoritarian and an affront to Iraq’s stability and nation-building efforts.
During the election campaign, Al-Maliki suggested that Iraqis should go for early parliamentary elections, a move interpreted as an attempt to utilise the local elections to build the support that would help him later to secure a third term in office.
He also promised to move towards a majority government dominated by Shias, which would expand his hold on power and jeopardise Iraq’s fledgling political process by further alienating his Sunni and Kurdish rivals and raising sectarian tensions in the country.
Because he wields enormous powers, oversees many state organisations involved in local governance, and controls the state-owned media, the army and the security forces, Al-Maliki would have most certainly benefited from loyal local governments to muster the public support needed to secure the job again.
It was anticipated that Al-Maliki would try to establish coalitions with other Shia blocs in all the provinces, but his endeavours stalled after he insisted that his List be given key posts, such as those of governors.
But with his failure to win the political majority that would have enabled his State of the Law List to form local governments, the question remains whether Al-Maliki will now back away from his plans for an early general election that would bolster his grip on the country.
The next polls are scheduled for summer or autumn next year.
Meanwhile, Al-Maliki is expected to face stronger opposition from rivals that now control most of the provincial governments and will be able to influence local politics and resources that were manipulated by Al-Maliki and his Daawa Party over the last four years.
The ISCI reaped a relatively good return in most provincial councils in the Shia provinces, coming second after Al-Maliki with 78 seats. The Sadrist Movement came third with 46 seats. The elections also resulted in a new rise of secular and liberal forces, which won a number of seats in most of the southern provinces.
Significantly, the ISCI and the Sadrists have made the situation worse for Al-Maliki by allying themselves with the main Sunni list in Baghdad to form its new provincial government.
Al-Maliki’s failure to form most of the new local governments is a sign of rising dissatisfaction with his authoritarianism. One of the main accusations against Al-Maliki has been that he restricted the work of local councils, which in theory were set up to ensure decentralised governance and democratic succession.
Indeed, some newly elected councillors have vowed to bring outgoing governors and councillors, mostly Al-Maliki’s cronies, to account for their alleged negligence, mismanagement and corruption.
Baghdad’s new Chief Councillor Riad Al-Adhad told local media outlets that the council’s first priority would be to probe allegations of massive corruption by the previous Daawa Party-led administration.
All this indicates that the bruising setbacks for Al-Maliki, who has fallen foul of his own autocratic rule, had meant his losing a great deal of influence in Iraqi politics. It now remains to be seen how much of a fundamental shift this will make in Iraq’s political map.
Much will depend on the strategies chosen by the ISCI and the Sadrists to work together with Sunni Arabs and Kurdish partners away from the ethno-sectarian politics adopted by Al-Maliki and largely blamed for Iraq’s lingering conflict.
Iraq has been gridlocked by crisis since the US withdrawal in December 2011, and this has paralysed Al-Maliki’s government and is increasingly pushing the ethnically and sectarian divided country to the brink of chaos.
The new pragmatic alliance which both the ISCI and the Sadrists forged to form Baghdad’s provincial government could herald a change of course in the substance of Iraq’s politics and away from the sectarianism that has paralysed the country for so long.

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