With parliamentary elections set for May 12, most of the campaign has so far consisted of prominent major figures such as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Speaker Salim al-Jabouri giving speeches in their capacity as elected officials—part of the informal campaigning that has gone on before the April 14 start date. Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, head of the State of Law Coalition (SLC) and one of Iraq’s current vice presidents, held large rallies and openly talked about the upcoming election as a means of (very ill-defined) change. This informal campaigning, which has contained little policy debate, naturally advantages the establishment parties by giving them more opportunity to control the narrative.
Given this advantage and despite some initial stumbles, Abadi remains the campaign’s frontrunner. He has built his campaign narrative around his role as commander-in-chief overseeing the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). Moreover, his hardline stance on the Kurdish referendum in September, leading to Baghdad’s reassertion of federal control over Kirkuk in October, put him in a very strong position by December. However, his credibility on nationalism, war leadership, and governance are increasingly challenged.
Hampered by the earlier mishandling of his coalition launch in January, he appeared to sell out his nationalist credentials to guarantee his reelection thorough a deal with Iran-backed factions of the Fatah Alliance, led by the Badr Organization, only to see this deal fall through. The impression of inauthenticity was reinforced in February when one of his closest allies in the Dawa Party, MP Ali al-Allaq, revealed in an interview that Abadi and Maliki had agreed in writing to merge their coalitions after the election despite each regularly blaming the other for Iraq’s current woes. Allaq’s comments set off a media firestorm about the apparent “secret agreement,” and as a result, the party reportedly hauled him before a disciplinary committee.
This disclosure reinforced the impression that Abadi’s nationalist credentials were for sale, as with the near-alliance with the Iran-backed Fatah. And it meant that Dawa was violating electoral rules, since the electoral commission’s ruling in January that a party could not run on more than one alliance meant that Dawa had to publicly claim that its leaders were running as independents on separate lists.
Adding to Abadi’s campaign troubles, there was increased media coverage of an apparent terrorist resurgence following a spate of lethal attacks by IS against security personnel in parts of Kirkuk governorate where militant groups have long flourished. These operations undermined Abadi’s security narrative and war leadership. Populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr even went as far to say that, “given the government’s clear failure in this regard, we are ready to save Kirkuk from the hand of terrorism,” referring to the possible remobilization of Sadr’s own militia.
While there is no indication that IS will retake territory as it did in 2014, this perception of security failure is a problem for Abadi, who has so emphatically based his political fortunes on his role as commander-in-chief. Since proclaiming in December that Iraqi land “has been totally liberated” in a “historical victory which will be remembered for generations,” Abadi has built on this theme, even naming his own electoral coalition the Nasr (“Victory”) Coalition. Abadi has responded by criticizing the media. While he correctly stressed that IS no longer exercises total control of any territory, his rhetoric has veered into the hysterical. In a speech to prominent Baghdad residents on March 26, Abadi demanded to know why Iraq’s mainstream media “publishes false news about false victories by Daesh,” and went on to complain that some lacked patriotism.
Simultaneously, a wave of protests in parts of Baghdad over poor public services—particularly in the north Baghdad neighborhood of Husseiniya, where residents blocked the highway to Kirkuk, and in the eastern neighborhood of Fudhailia—has challenged Abadi’s narrative of a successful Iraq under his stewardship. Other Baghdad areas seeing public service protests include Maamil, Saba Qusur, Saba al-Bur, Nahrawan, Nasr, and Jisr Diyala. The most commonly mentioned complaints include lack of access to clean water, healthcare, and infrastructure. While the protests are increasing ahead of elections in part to pressure authorities to take action, a recent increase in water contamination due to the dilapidated sewer system has further increased citizens’ anger.
Recognizing the political threat these protests pose, Abadi reacted dramatically on April 1, issuing an executive order to establish a “national effort” wherein federal ministry workers will take over responsibility for completing public service projects—particularly water and sewer systems, roads, schools and hospitals—that the federal government has not had the funding to contract to outside providers. The order creates an operations room headed by Deputy Minister for Construction, Housing & Municipalities Istibraq al-Shawk, who will operate under Abadi’s direct supervision—making him directly responsible when it falls short. Yet Abadi’s order is not feasible because ministry and other state employees lack the capacity to implement the public services badly needed, and it is no more than an election promise. After providing further details about this national effort during his April 10 press conference, Abadi said (perhaps too optimistically) that people understood that although the government was working on these problems it could not solve all of them before the elections.
There have been protests elsewhere, many of them stirred up by Abadi’s own efforts to reform the electricity sector, leading Abadi to backtrack and increase electricity subsidies. But Baghdad is his key constituency and home province. Unlike several southern provinces—where security and economic conditions have deteriorated under Abadi due in part to increased organized crime, a worsening water crisis, and a lack of money for public services—Baghdad residents have indeed benefited from security improvements and accompanying economic revival since 2014, yet its population is still restive and the improvements failed to make an noticeable difference in their lives. Furthermore, Baghdad elects 69 of the next parliament’s 329 seats, and Abadi is hoping his list will pick up enough seats there to offset his diminished support in the southern nine Shia-majority provinces, which together elect only 125 seats.
While elections are often more about narrative than policy prescription, Abadi is increasingly losing control of the narrative despite his lead and with only a month to go. The next month of official campaigning will only bring further scrutiny of his record and disagreements over his vision for the country’s future. Still, given the advantage of incumbency and the fragmented political landscape, Abadi’s Nasr Coalition still stands a good chance of winning a plurality. However, a narrow plurality or a virtual tie with the Iran-backed Fatah, would leave Abadi with little leverage in post-election negotiations, resulting in another weak government with no coherent policy program.
Kirk H. Sowell is a political risk analyst and the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics. Follow him on Twitter @uticarisk.