Thursday, 10 July 2014

IN DEPTH: Can Al-Maliki survive?

IN DEPTH: Can Al-Maliki survive?

Despite his characteristic resilience, can Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki survive the unfolding crisis in Iraq? In the first week of the crisis Al-Maliki appeared lost and unable to comprehend the political ramifications of ISIS's advances and seemed to have been written off by almost every side. It therefore seemed all but inevitable that the beleaguered premier would have to concede defeat and step down.

In typical style, however, he pulled himself together quickly enough and since then has been on the offensive. Al-Maliki is fighting back hard, something that will have won him further support and respect among some Iraqi Shi’as, many of whom believe that, rather than being the root of the problem, Al-Maliki is the man to protect them from what they see as a sectarian onslaught by the Sunnis and by terrorist forces. 

One should not forget that Al-Maliki still has the support of large swathes of the Shi’a population. His State of Law Alliance took the largest number of votes in the last elections and Al-Maliki himself won 720,000 votes, the largest share of any single candidate. For all that he may be despised and accused of being authoritarian and sectarian, Al-Maliki is still the strongman of the Iraqi political scene. 

All this makes it very difficult for the other political players to force him out. This includes his Shi’a rivals. That is not to say that they haven’t been trying. The Sadrists and to a slightly lesser degree the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), are insisting on Al-Maliki’s departure, even going so far as to nominate alternative candidates for the premiership. At the end of June both blocs proposed Adel Abdulmehdi, the current deputy president, as their chosen candidate. 

Yet their efforts alone are unlikely to unseat Al-Maliki, who is not relying on either the Sadrists or ISCI for his third term. Aware that they were not going to give him a chance, he left both behind weeks ago, deciding instead to focus on forging alliances with other factions, including some Sunnis. It was through such alliances that Al-Maliki succeeded in getting the support of 165 MPs from a range of parties and currents outside the National Alliance. 

Thus for all that these big Shi’a players may be pushing for Al-Maliki’s departure they have little real influence over whether he stays or goes. 

Instead, Al-Maliki’s survival depends more on whether the State of Law Alliance and those smaller political forces that have thrown their weight behind him will continue to back him. There has been a lot of talk that key components inside the State of Law Alliance are ready to drop Al-Maliki. There have also been reports that the alliance is considering putting forward alternative candidates for the prime minister’s post. 

Among the names being circulated are Al-Maliki’s adviser Tariq Najm; deputy prime minister with responsibility for energy affairs Hussain Al-Shahrastani; deputy president Khodeir Khozei; transport minister and head of the Al-Badr Organisation, Hadi Al-Ameri; and national security adviser Faleh Al-Fayed. Notably, none of these individuals are from Al-Maliki’s Al-Dawa party, which had a weaker showing in the elections than many other components of the State of Law Alliance. 

Despite this talk, however, as yet there are no concrete signs that the alliance is about to crack or that it has any intention of withdrawing its support for Al-Maliki. This is perhaps unsurprising. State of Law is Al-Maliki’s creation and was built around him. Although there are other important figures within it, he is still the glue that holds it together and that enables it to attract so much public support. Thus abandoning Al-Maliki will not be that easy. That does not mean that they won’t do it. Much will depend on how much pressure the alliance comes under from other Shi’a parties, from other parts of the political establishment and from external forces, including Iran and the US – Washington clearly doesn’t want Al-Maliki to continue. 

As to whether those MPs from outside his alliance that Al-Maliki managed to win over will stick by him now this crisis has erupted, this is a more questionable matter. This is especially the case for those Sunni elements that Al-Maliki managed to pick off and bring over to his side, who may be persuaded to retract if they see that things are not going the prime minister’s way. Some of these elements might well falter if they see that the tide has turned against Al-Maliki and that the only way forward is to force him out of power. 

Al-Maliki’s days may well be numbered and without such support he will have no chance of holding on.

For more news and expert analysis about Iraq, please see Iraq Focus.

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