Third election win at Maliki’s fingertips

A strong leader to some, dull to many, Nouri al-Maliki is digging deep to gain a third term as Iraq’s prime minister.

The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has lost some of his cross-community support [AFP]

Baghdad, Iraq – Such was Saddam Hussein’s charisma that Iraqi men were known to style their moustaches like his, and families named their children as he had his own.

Though thought brutal by some, he was admired by others for his taste in sharp suits and his flamboyant ways. Every Iraqi knew stories about Saddam.

But ask them about their current leader, Nouri al-Maliki – in power since 2006 and perhaps set to secure a third term – and they’ll mostly just shrug their shoulders.

The truth is, many Iraqis think he is boring.

Some reports say the former literature student enjoys reciting poems by heart, but little else is known about his personal life and of the world away from his increasingly lengthy public speeches.

Yet, there is another word that you hear in Baghdad when people talk about Maliki: strong. And it is that reputation that he and his Dawa Party colleagues hope will keep him at the helm.

Many of Maliki’s supporters who spoke to Al Jazeera said he combined a humble life with tough political action. For several of his opponents, the reputation for hardness was characterised through aggression.

“We always hear him speaking in a language of blood and violence, like he wants to take revenge on Iraqis not lead them to safety,” Ahmed al-Masari, an MP who opposes Maliki, said.

But Abbas al-Bayati, one of the prime minister’s coalition colleagues, sees his manner as “bold”.

“Maliki is characterised by humility, simplicity and has culture,” al-Bayati said.

“He knows how to lead the war against terrorism.”

That sell could not come at a better time. Iraq is caught in its most violent period since 2007.

Sectarian strife

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is a group with the wind behind its back. Formed from the rump of a disbanded al-Qaeda affiliate, ISIL has been boosted by fighting in the Syrian conflict and has brought that to bear in Iraq.

It now holds parts of the city of Fallujah, 65km from the capital, and Maliki has responded by encirclement and bombardment, causing 66,000 families to flee.

Some in Baghdad – terrified by the proximity of fighters with a vicious reputation – are urging him on.

But others around the country are not so sure.

There is a strong sectarian element at play. Maliki leads a Shia-dominated government in a predominantly Shia nation but, over the last few years, many Sunni politicians – and many from the communities they represent – say he has been sidelining them.

It is against this backdrop that ISIL, a Sunni group, have launched this latest offensive.

And moderation, on either side, is becoming a rare commodity.

At the last elections in 2010, Maliki spoke of reconciliation and the coalition government he formed, though it took eight months of negotiation to put together, included both Sunni and Kurdish parties.

Since then, however, he has hardened and fallen out with cross-sectarian colleagues.

If Dawa does emerge with the most seats, and he manages to build a coalition – certain to be necessary because of Iraq’s fractured politics – it is likely to be more Shia than before.

Rebels on the capital’s doorstep are far from the 63-year-old’s only problem.

Despite huge oil wealth, Iraq struggles to provide basic services. Power cuts out several times a day, rubbish goes uncollected and 10 million live on or below the poverty line.

Corruption, too, angers Iraqis and many politicians have made it a major campaign issue.

‘I can deliver’

With so many problems, in most other countries, Maliki would not stand a chance of re-election.

But having cast himself as the defender of the Shia, and with the Sunni opposition divided, he has few credible opponents.

And for all their criticism of Maliki, some Iraqis say that neither the Shia, Sunni nor secular opposition have put forward convincing plans to run things better.

However, it will not be an easy election.

Powerful Shia leaders have withdrawn their support for Maliki and, should he fail to get enough seats to give him the upper hand in coalition-building, they will put alternatives forward for his job.

For now, they are playing their cards close to their chests.

His main foreign backers, Iran and the US, have also failed to provide the public support they gave freely during previous elections. Analysts say that both want Iraq to hold together. It does not matter to them who achieves it.

Despite all of this, Maliki seems determined to stay on.

“I think part of his sense of himself is: ‘I am the person who can deliver. I have a mandate and it is my responsibility. So work with me on my terms’,” a Baghdad-based Western diplomat said.

Additional reporting by Isam Rasheed

Follow Barry Malone on Twitter: @malonebarry

Source: Al Jazeera