Al-Maliki’s Chances of Making Comeback as Prime Minister of Iraq

EPC | 02 Mar 2021

The former Iraqi Prime Minister and leader of the State of Law Coalition Nouri al-Maliki is seeking to promote himself to head the next government that will be formed following the early elections that are scheduled for October 2021. During the past days, his coalition and other loyal parties began organising a media campaign to polish Maliki's image and launch an early election campaign that sparked various reactions in popular and political circles.

This paper attempts to read Maliki's electoral chances, and trace his campaign and its impact on the Shiite alliance.

From implication to expression

During the past few weeks, Maliki held a series of media interviews with the Iranian Al-Alam, the Al-Ghadeer of the Badr Organisation and the Iraqi Al-Sumaria channels, during which he spoke frankly about his ambition to become prime minister once again. In those interviews, Maliki raised his expectation that the results of his electoral alliance in the upcoming elections would be better than those of the 2018 elections, and explicitly indicated his readiness to accept the premiership if it was offered to him. However, he stated that when he comes to power again, he would face the Shiite militias, specifically the militia of the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, thus ending the chances of an alliance with Sadr who called at the end of 2020 for the return of the Shiite alliance during the elections. Indeed, Maliki benefitted from the popular discontent with followers of Sadr who practised transgression and violation of the law since the popular protests at the end of 2019 until today, by publicly pursuing and targeting activists, and threatening everyone who opposes or disagrees with Sadr.

Maliki has also re-promoted himself regionally and internationally by claiming to have “good relations” with “US President Joe Biden, his Secretary of State and his team in the new administration”. Indeed, he offered himself as a mediator between Iran and the US in the nuclear file, when he said, “If any Iranian or US side wants me to intervene to solve the crisis between them, I have no objection”.

Maliki's explicit announcement of his pursuit of the position of prime minister opened the door wide to intense political debates between Shiite rivals, especially between the State of Law Coalition and the Sadr Movement that, before the end of 2020, officially announced its desire to head the government as well, and entered into a media war with Maliki. The Fatah (Conquest) Alliance also declared that it intends to nominate its leader Hadi al-Amiri to take over the position, according to Abbas Al-Zamili, a member of the Alliance, saying, “We shall get 50 seats in the upcoming elections, and we shall nominate Hadi al-Amiri for prime minister”.

Maliki’s tools

Maliki has a set of tools and means through which he tries to manage the Shiite conflict over the prime minister’s position. Members of his political bloc believe that these are "advantages" that "no Shiite leader of the religious trend" may possess, including:

1. Maliki is always proud of his success in imposing security during his first term and his security campaign “Charge of the Knights” against the Mahdi Army militia in 2008, which was the only one led by the Iraqi security services against the Shiite militants, and was able at that time to restore part of the state's prestige. Maliki and the leaders of his Dawa (Call) Party try to remind of it on every occasion. They promote the idea that Maliki is the only person capable of confining weapons to the hands of the state even though he is the one who allowed the rest of the militias to operate under the protection of his government, such as the Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Leagues of the Righteous) and the Jaysh al-Mukhtar (Army of the Chosen). He is also already allied with the leaders of the al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Committee, PMC) militias within the Bina (Construction) Alliance, and relies on them greatly in his new candidacy for prime minister. Therefore, he will not be able to limit the weapons or hit the militias as he did in the past.

2. Maliki built a legitimate base during his rule by exploiting government institutions, through expanding appointments in government jobs, making financial donations from the public budget, granting state properties and unoccupied lands, and buying the loyalties of tribal sheikhs by offering them weapons, money, and positions for their followers. He believes that the groups that benefited from his rule would reciprocate by offering him support.

3. Maliki finances a number of institutions run by his sons-in-law and that seek to polish his image and promote him as a popular leader, such as the Al-Bashair (Good Auguries) Foundation, which is linked to the Al-Bashair Youth Movement, and is managed by his son-in-law Yasser Sakheil al-Maliki. The Foundation organises events and festivals for the associated youth, promotes Maliki as the strong leader, and plays a major role in the media and social mobilisation of Maliki through the distribution of material benefits, goods and money. Maliki also owns the satellite TV channel Afaq, although his most dangerous and powerful media activity is what falls within the so-called "electronic army" that through thousands of fake accounts on social media platforms, defends and promotes him, and attacks his rivals and critics.

4. Maliki maintains a close relationship with Iran, as he is one of the Iraqi political figures closest to the Iranian regime. Tehran benefits from Maliki in promoting its interests in Iraq and in mediating and easing tension between the Iraqi government led by Mustafa al-Kadhimi and the armed factions loyal to it, as happened when the Kataib Hezbollah (Battalions of the Party of God) stormed the Green Zone in June 2020, and Maliki played a role in ending the crisis.

5. Maliki believes that unlike the rest of the Shiite leaders, he has good relations with the administration of US President Joe Biden, and seeks to benefit from those relations to achieve his authoritarian goals. Thus, he was the first to congratulate Biden on his victory and released more than one statement to flirt with him, including his assertion that “the current changes in the region and the arrival of the US administration headed by Joe Biden may end the crisis and alleviate the US-Iranian conflict, and we hope that this would reflect positively on Iraq”.

Maliki's weaknesses

While some Sunni and Kurdish actors were strongly opposed to Maliki’s third term in 2014, their positions have changed somewhat in recent times due to the changes taking place in the region. The Sunni blocs close to the State of Qatar have improved their relations with Maliki. The latter has also tried to provide support to the Kurdish delegations that visit Baghdad in order to settle disputes over the budget and oil exports. However, there are many weaknesses in Maliki himself and the political entities that he leads, which reduce his chances of a new term in the premiership, most notably:

1. Sadr's veto: Muqtada al-Sadr has always put a "veto" on the issue of Maliki's return to power. He had reluctantly accepted the idea of Maliki’s second term in 2014. He had also openly declared that the next Prime Minister should be a "Sadrist", and that he would not be satisfied with the role of designating Maliki. It is known that Sadr enjoys great popularity in the centre and south of the country, which may guarantee him a good number of parliamentary seats, allowing him to set conditions for the personality of the "Shiite" candidate for prime minister.

2. Fear of a repeat of Maliki’s experience: Maliki’s term coincided with the atmosphere of sectarian strife in the country, frequent terrorist bombings and his bad relations with Iraq’s Arab neighbourhood. Therefore, some political actors and many popular circles fear trying him again, especially with regard to his role in suppressing freedoms and muzzling critics and the spread of corruption, given that national quarters hold him responsible for the loss of large financial budgets and the establishment of the system of financial and administrative corruption.

3. The new electoral development: after the adoption of a new electoral law that doubles the number of electoral districts and provides for direct individual election, Maliki and his political bloc seem to be among the most prominent losers, given that it is no longer possible under the new law for the great leader to bring in a number of seats from his surplus votes. The State of Law Coalition is poorly organised, and depends mainly on the personality of Maliki and his ability to attract votes. It was one of the most prominent actors that opposed the new electoral system.

4. His opposition to the popular protests in the country that began in 2019 and were the reason behind the approval of the early elections. Indeed, most of the slogans raised by the demonstrators were mainly attacking Maliki. His assumption of the premiership once again would amount to the return of the popular protests and sit-ins, which is feared by the rest of the Shiite actors because this would threaten with the end of the political system that provides them with power, influence and money.

5. The growth of strong Shiite competition with him: the Shiite armed organisations that were subject to him and did not compete with him in the elections became strong and independent electoral competitors, such as the Asaib, the Nujaba (Nobles) and others. Furthermore, there are rising ambitions among the rest of his former allies to win the position of prime minister, such as Hadi al-Amiri, Falih al-Fayyadh, and even Qasim al-Araji.

Possible scenarios for the path of Maliki and his coalition in the upcoming elections

The first scenario: Nouri al-Maliki fails to obtain the position of "prime minister", and is content with the participation by his electoral list, the State of Law Coalition, in a Shiite parliamentary coalition that brings together the actors loyal to Tehran, and perhaps obtain only one ministry in the next coalition government. The factors that control the formation of this scene are the following:

1. The expected failure in the next general elections due to the decline in popularity and the new electoral law that only serves the dominant powers on the ground or those that have wide popularity. Accordingly, the State of Law Coalition may obtain ten seats at best, which would not qualify it to assume the leadership role in the Shiite parliamentary bloc.

2. His complete conversion into the hard-line Shiite axis. Any candidacy for him for the post of prime minister would mean that he is the candidate of Iran and the militias loyal to it, which may be rejected by the US side which is trying to curb the Iranian role and combat Iran's arms in the region.

3. Perhaps the most important factor is the opposition of the supreme Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani, who was behind not naming Maliki for a third term in 2014. Since that date, the not-so-good relationship continued between Maliki and the son of the authority (Mohammad Ridha al-Sistani) who tends to name moderate Shiite figures to head the government, and even opposes the approach of the militias affiliated with the PMC that are close to Tehran, viewing their political rise as a threat to his father's standing.

For all those reasons and others, it would be difficult for Nouri al-Maliki to be prime minister in Iraq again, despite the great propaganda he launched and the public relations campaign that he runs. Therefore, this scenario is the likely one.

The second scenario: return to the premiership as a candidate for the (militia) Shiite powers close to the Iranian Supreme Leader. In order for Nouri al-Maliki to achieve his goal, there is a set of conditions and circumstances that need to be met, namely:

1. The blocs loyal to the Iranian Supreme Leader need to obtain more than 50 seats in Parliament, agree to nominate Maliki as a compromise candidate among themselves due to their lack of political experience and appropriate names for such a position, and see in Maliki the person who guarantees the continuation of their privileges.

2. After Maliki obtains Iranian blessing for his candidacy for the post of prime minister, Tehran may succeed in pressuring Muqtada al-Sadr to accept Maliki as prime minister again in exchange for which the Sadrist Movement would obtain many positions and benefits that it could not attain in previous governments.

3. Maliki may be able to provide guarantees to the US side to control the militias with which he is allied, and to prevent the targeting of US interests in Iraq, especially if the US administration enters into a phase of armistice and negotiations with the Iranian regime.

4. With regard to Sistani's position, it is subject to the bargains achieved by his son Mohammad Ridha. Rumour has it that Maliki had previously threatened to open corruption files against Sistani's proxies and son, and perhaps compromise their economic interests, but he would first try to negotiate and present interests to the circles of the Shiite authority.

Conclusion

  • Former Iraqi Prime Minister and leader of the State of Law Coalition Nouri al-Maliki is seeking to promote himself locally and regionally to return to power after the early elections scheduled for October 2021. Through this campaign, he seeks to establish his presence within the political scene and enhance his influence with Iran and the Shiite public.
  • There are many factors that reduce Maliki's chances of a new term as prime minister, most notably: Sadr’s veto and Sistani's opposition to him, his bad experience in government, the expected decline in his electoral chances under the new electoral law, and the presence of strong Shiite competition with him by the Sadrist Movement and the Badr Organisation, both of which aspire to obtain the position of prime minister.
  • Maliki's chances are slim not only in returning to the helm of the executive authority, but also in remaining as a major player in the Iraqi political scene.

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