On August 14 Iraq witnessed another moment of peaceful transition of power, in a region that is unfamiliar with it. Nouri al-Maliki, who has held the post since 2006, and winner of the elections in April, decided to withdraw from his pursuit of a third term and backed another candidate from his own Dawa party, Haider al-Abadi, who was already nominated by a large alliance of parties and politicians.
It was at times an acrimonious process, with Maliki insisting that he was the only legal nominee for PM and threatening legal action against President Masum for nominating Abadi in a move he called a “constitutional violation”. But in the end the overwhelming support for a change in the premiership, both at home and abroad, convinced Maliki that his time was up.
Maliki retains leadership of his party and the State of Law coalition that has over 90 MPs in Iraq’s parliament, meaning he will remain a significant force in Iraqi politics. But the focus now is on his successor who comes into the role in arguably tougher conditions than Maliki did in 2006, at the height of the sectarian strife that ravaged the country. The continued threat of the Islamic State group, manifest in its capabilities to conduct ethnic cleansing almost at will, is the greatest single threat to the newly democratic Iraq since its creation in 2003.
While Abadi has never held the highest political offices in Iraq before, he will assume the premiership with unprecedented support from regional and international powers. The US, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, have all expressed backing for the designation of Abadi as PM and urged the quick formation of a new government. A reset button seems to have been pressed by Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties with regards to Abadi, after they had a troubled relationship with his predecessor. There are encouraging signs that all parties will take part in the new government and present a united front against the war with the Islamic State group.
But there are several fundamental problems that the new PM will have to contend with in addition to the military battles that Iraq currently struggles with. Firstly, he will have to face the fractious nature of Iraq’s imposed unity governments that are based on unwritten sectarian quotas, meaning that disputes and gridlock are never far away.
Secondly, he will have to continue the battle to weed out corruption and incompetence, in all state institutions including the military, that paralyse the government’s ability to run the country properly.
Thirdly, he will have to address the grievances and aspirations of the government’s constituent communities; the Shia Arabs in the oil-rich but under-developed South, the Sunni Arabs in the Western and Northern provinces who have suffered the effects of terrorism and poor representation, and the Kurds in the autonomous Kurdish region that hope for independence after a history of conflict with Baghdad. He will also have to promote the inclusion of the numerous ethnic and religious minorities who face an existential threat and also little political influence.
Daunting is the challenge, and Abadi is an untested leader in an unenviable position. But he brings some notable characteristics to the job that will serve him better than his predecessor. He is a technocrat, speaks good English, and is willing to share decision-making and rely on professional advice.
He does not have the large circle of “friends” and advisors around him that isolated his predecessor, nor does he have much appetite to allow for one. He is not overly influenced by Iran or any other foreign country, nor has he made any enemies among Iraq’s wide spectrum of politicians. In fact he is amiable and understated in a manner similar to that of the other heads of office, Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jibouri and President Fuad Masum.
Being amiable is not enough though in a country being torn apart by extremist violence and sectarian hate. Even if foreign intervention stalls the Islamic State group and provides relief to those facing massacre, the unrefined nature of democracy in Iraq may render the most capable leader ineffective. The sectarian overtones that dominate internal debates, and inform foreign powers when addressing Iraq, in addition to the concentration of power in the hands of elites often distant from citizens, are reasons to be pessimistic. That Iraq in its entirety – every single ethnic and religious group – is under attack by the Islamic State group may unwittingly be the factor that pulls Iraq together, and that forces the PM and the rest to find solutions to Iraq’s many problems.
But time is not on Abadi’s side and whatever optimism there is will quickly evaporate when the stark reality of what Iraq has become begins to bear over him and the people. He needs to form a new government quickly, filling it with the right people for the right posts and not according to which party or sect they are from. The Islamic State group is at the doorstep and have one foot through the doorway already; any more failures by Iraq’s politicians is an invitation for them to come right in.
Is Haider al-Abadi capable of leading Iraq? And even if he is, can he do anything to prevent the cycle of violence that has plagued Iraq for decades? The answers need to come soon or risk becoming irrelevant.
Sajad Jiyad is a London-based independent analyst and researcher on Iraq.
Follow him on Twitter: @SajadJiyad