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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Iraq elections 2018: Will Haider Al Abadi be re-elected?

The current prime minister is the frontrunner in Saturday's race but much hinges on post-vote negotiations

In this May 1, 2018 file picture, Iraq Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi speaks during a campaign rally in Baghdad.Hadi Mizban / AP Photo
In this May 1, 2018 file picture, Iraq Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi speaks during a campaign rally in Baghdad.Hadi Mizban / AP Photo

Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi will be hoping his track record against ISIS will be in Iraqi voters' minds on Saturday. In case they have forgotten, the name of his coalition is Nasr, or Victory.

He had little such swagger when he took office in 2014, having come to the fore as a compromise candidate after political horse-trading between parties. Inoffensive to many if only because he was a relative unknown, some saw him as a weak technocrat who could be easily manipulated.

He has proven otherwise. After replacing Nouri Al Maliki, who despite being disgraced by the rise of ISIS and the group's advance toward Baghdad became a vice president after resigning as prime minister - Mr Abadi stepped into perhaps the toughest job in the world. Aside from ISIS overrunning a third of the country, he had to contend with the collapse of 22 army and federal police brigades, as well as Kurds in the north threatening to secede. The front cover of Time Magazine had already proclaimed the end of Iraq, while even bullish American generals predicted the war against ISIS could last a decade.

Mr Abadi's reversal of ISIS is his strongest card. And he is playing it.

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Iraq elections 2018: military and diaspora begin casting their votes

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He declared total victory against the group at a military parade in December where formations of marching soldiers spelled out 'Nasr'.

All along, the prime minister has used his reputation as an inoffensive technocrat to his advantage, deftly balancing relations between Iran and the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. He has made attempts at statesmanship with his constituents within Iraq too. A Shiite who eschews sectarianism, he won respect from at least some Sunnis for his role in liberating Mosul and other areas from ISIS, while also reaching out to Kurds by opening a speech to them in broken Kurdish, a language he does not speak. His list is the only one to campaign in all 18 of Iraq’s provinces and Mr Abadi himself made a recent campaign trip to Iraq’s autonomous region of Kurdistan.

Any votes Mr Abadi can win from across Iraq's sectarian divides will be crucial as he faces down powerful Shiite rivals. Foremost among them is likely to be Hadi Al Ameri, leading the Fatah – or conquest bloc. Like Mr Abadi, Mr Ameri is trading off his role in the war against ISIS as leader of the Hashed al Shaabi paramilitary forces.

Popular in Shiite areas in southern Iraq, he is seen as a strongman with a long military record and is tipped to run second to Mr Abadi in the elections. But the 63-year-old has a chequered history: he fought against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, on the side of Iran, killing Iraqis in the 1980s, and later against the Americans following the 2003 invasion. His ascension would likely sway Iraq's foreign policy away from the US and towards Iran.

Mr Al Maliki, meanwhile, is attempting to become prime minister again. He was also a relative unknown when he was appointed in 2006, with American approval. He had campaigned on rebuilding state institutions, tackling corruption and providing services but instead his eight years in office were blighted by accusations of sectarianism and corruption. His rule was widely blamed for contributing to the rise of ISIS. As head of the Dawa Party, Mr Maliki, combined with his vice presidency, remains one of the country's most influential politicians.

An Iraqi woman and a girl walk past an electoral banner for former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki that was damaged by a storm the day before, in the capital Baghdad on April 28, 2018. Sabah Arar / AFP Photo
An Iraqi woman and a girl walk past an electoral banner for former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki that was damaged by a storm the day before, in the capital Baghdad on April 28, 2018. Sabah Arar / AFP Photo

He has proposed forming a multi-ethnic political majority government as opposed to the current system in which the cabinet must reflect the make-up of parliament. But critics fear a return of sectarianism. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the leader of Iraq's Shiite Muslims, appeared to suggest in a recent sermon that he was opposed to Mr Maliki’s return, telling Iraqis they should "avoid falling into the trap of those... who are corrupt and those who have failed".

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Iraq elections 2018: country readies for first polls since end of ISIS war

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The evolution of Iraqi politics, since the end of the permanent presence of the US military, is completed by the rise in politics of Moqtadr Al Sadr.

The former head of the Mahdi army, a Shiite militia who opposed the American presence and killed many soldiers, has undergone a transformation that sees him embraced as a populist folk hero among his followers.

Unlike in 2010, when he backed Mr Maliki, Mr Al Sadr has this year rejected the former premier's proposed majoritarian government. Mr Al Sadr has also paired with the secular Iraqi communist party to form Al Sairun Party, and can be counted on to mobilise his supporters.

A large number of Kurdish, Sunni, Shiite and secular blocs are also contesting the elections and will win seats. With so many blocs, even though Mr Abadi will likely win a plurality, he will need to form a coalition.

"These major parties, they will all pick up seats in double digits but I don't think anyone will reach above 40, except Abadi," predicts Sajad Jiyad, the managing director of Baghdad-based think tank Al Bayan Center.

Months of back room negotiations could follow before a government is announced, with how many seats the smaller parties win influencing the make-up of government. But Mr Jiyad believes it is Prime Minister Abadi who is best qualified to retain the top job.

"Abadi is the only one of the candidates committed to keeping Iraq neutral in the region," he said.

"He also hasn't alienated anyone in the country, we've got support from the IMF [International Monetary Fund], we have the coalition [against ISIS]. He's the only one committed to remaining on that course."

With little to distinguish the candidates in terms of policy – all vow to fight corruption and improve services – it is unclear how the elections will improve the day to day life of ordinary Iraqis.

"There's no policy, it's all just buzzwords," Renad Mansour, an Iraq expert with international affairs think tank Chatham House, told The National. Speaking from Erbil, he added: "All a lot of Iraqis see is the same old elite saying they're going to change."