Abadi Slam: The Struggles of Iraq’s Reformist Premier
By Ben Tannenbaum
Photograph of Haider al-Abadi courtesy of The Levant News
September 8, 2014 seemed to provide the rarest of rarities in Iraqi politics- consensus. Inside the ornately marbled halls of Parliament on the banks of the Tigris, the Council of Representatives came together to formally select a new Prime Minister. The man of the hour, Haider al-Abadi, had the support of his country’s typically antagonistic blocs, Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurd. Global powerbrokers such as Barack Obama and Ban Ki Moon hailed the inauguree. Even regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia both accepted Abadi’s ascent. Nevertheless, this glimpse of unity proved ephemeral. Abadi has not managed to foster unity among rival sects. Dissidents within Abadi’s Shi’a base have also started to oppose the premier. Meanwhile, in the midst of political chaos, a drastic decline in oil prices threatens Iraq’s already frail economy. Abadi has alienated key political factions and mismanaged the economy, making his hold on power fragile.
Despite the initial promises of unity, Abadi has failed to maintain support from Kurds or Sunnis. On the economic front, the Kurdistan Regional Government has butted heads with Baghdad over distribution of oil revenues. Recently, Kurdistan started independently selling its own oil, cutting the central government out of the loop. Although the two sides reached an agreement in February to restore Baghdad’s share of oil revenue, many analysts question whether the sides can implement their deal. In addition to the economic disputes, the Kurds have also had territorial tensions with the Abadi administration. After liberating Mt. Sinjar from ISIS, Kurdish forces decided to keep their winnings and claimed Sinjar for the Kurdish region despite Baghdad’s admonishment. These economic and territorial disputes have frayed ties between the Iraqi government and Kurdish officials. Likewise, Abadi has also struggled to build unity with the restive Sunni minority. Sunni parliamentarians boycotted the 2015 budget vote to demand security forces for their constituents. Sunnis also fear close ties between the Iraqi government and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias like the Badr Corps. Abadi’s administration has heavily relied on these militias to fight ISIS, sowing anxiety among the Sunni population. Abadi has not managed to ease tensions between Iraq’s sectarian factions.
Even more worrisome, the Prime Minister faces notable dissent within his own Shi’a coalition. Last summer, Abadi proposed bold administrative reforms in order to trim the fat off of the country’s bureaucracy. At first, the proposals garnered support among Shi’a who projected a decline in Sunni patronage power. Yet this backing did not last long. Hardliners in the Shi’a Dawa party worried that Abadi’s plan would weaken the pro-Iran militias, and feared that Abadi would instead offer arms and money to Sunni tribal fighters. They also warned against expanded American aid in the anti-ISIS campaign. Such Shi’a opposition has smothered Abadi’s reforms. In addition, Abadi alienated his Shi’a constituency by proposing the removal of Shi’a Vice President Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki had served as Prime minister himself until 2014. He resented Abadi’s accession and remains a formidable rival today. Maliki controls a bloc of 60 MPs within Abadi’s coalition that recently voted against the reform package. This dissent within the Shi’a community has limited Abadi’s ability to act assertively. In fact, he recently had to reshuffle his cabinet in order to appease Shi’a rivals. Meanwhile Muqtada al-Sadr, a prominent cleric who controls 34 Shi’a MPs, has also publically criticized Abadi. Iraq’s Shi’a have mounted substantial resistance to the Abadi administration.
In addition to the political divisions, the Iraqi economy has suffered during Abadi’s tenure. Much of this downturn stems from broad global trends – namely the drop in oil prices. Iraq’s coffers stand especially vulnerable to the oil market because 95% of government revenues come from petro sales. As oil revenues tank, recent estimates indicate that government oil returns have dipped to merely 15% of their 2014 totals. The Kurds’ aforementioned independent oil sales also siphon funds away from Baghdad. Due to the oil challenges, other Iraqi economic indicators have lagged. In the past year, GDP, unemployment, and the poverty rate all worsened. In the summer, electricity shortages that limited access to air-conditioning during the sweltering summer months led to massive protests in Baghdad.
Abadi’s efforts to counter the economic downturn have fallen short. His recent budgets implemented spending cuts and tax increases in order to stabilize the government accounts. He has also borrowed money, taking out loans from Turkey, Egypt, Kuwait, Citigroup, and Deutsche Bank. Yet these measures seem unlikely to produce much success. Recent budgets over-estimate the improvements to Iraq’s economic future, factoring in optimistic assumptions of high oil prices. Unless prices do rise substantially, Iraq’s budget goals appear unrealistic. Likewise, Abadi’s austerity policies figure to have notable repercussions. Considering that the 40% of Iraq’s labor force works for the government, budget cuts seem likely to increase unemployment. In the immediate future, Iraq’s economy offers little cause for optimism.
These political and economic travails have threatened Abadi’s hold on the premiership, creating a few potential scenarios that could lead to his ouster. First, continued economic struggles could exacerbate discontent among the general population. A repeat of last summer’s protests may melt away any remaining support for the administration. Alternatively, parliamentary infighting could doom the Prime Minister. Dissident Shi’a MPs may strike if Abadi moves aggressively to implement his reform package or to arm Sunnis. Maliki lurks behind the scenes like Frank Underwood, waiting for an opportune moment to topple Abadi and reclaim the premiership. Faced with a plummeting economy and marauding bands of extremist invaders, Iraq needs a strong hand at the helm. Given his track record, it seems doubtful that Abadi can meet the challenge.