Ayad Allawi Sets Conditions to Recreate 2011 Premiership Bid

By Omer Kassim 

Key Takeaway: Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi is presenting himself as a viable Shi’a reformist alternative to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in the upcoming Iraqi legislative elections slated for May 12, 2018. Allawi is setting internal conditions to recreate his strong 2011 bid to secure the premiership. Allawi, a secular Shi’a politician, seeks to reunite the Sunni political leadership under a secular platform akin to the Iraqiyya coalition that won 92 seats in the Iraqi Council of Representatives under his leadership in 2010. Allawi will likely leverage his opposition to the expansion of Iranian influence in Iraq, reformist stance, and support for the Kurdistan Regional Government to draw Shi’a Sadrist and some Kurdish support in the post-election premier selection phase. Allawi can then maximize on his strong ties with Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, to augment his premiership bid.

Allawi is using his secular and nationalist credentials as well as his support for Sunni grievances as core pillars of his strategy to draw the Sunni vote. Allawi has arguably been the most prominent secular figure in the Iraqi political process since 2003. Allawi is highlighting his consistent secular credentials and his rejection of the sect-based division of power as major Sunni and Shi’a Islamist parties gravitate toward a secular campaign strategy. This shift coincides with an apparent public discontent with Islamist rule post-2003. The Vice President has also amplified his nationalist rhetoric, rejecting Iranian influence in Iraq and calling for the integration of the Iranian-backed PMF into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) following the defeat of ISIS. Allawi has advocated for the ability for internally displaced Sunnis to return to their homes as a condition for holding the elections. However, this is unlikely to be implemented fully due to security concerns and lack of infrastructure. Allawi has stated the Sunni communities in provinces formerly held by ISIS were the first to sacrifice for the liberation of their areas, identifying the failure in the political process as the reason for their plight.

Allawi has created the Iraqi National Alliance Coalition as a platform to unite Sunni political class under his leadership. The new coalition formed on January 11includes CoR Speaker Salim al-Jabouri, former Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq and Baathist-friendly elements outside the political process.  Jabouri is building up his secular credentials after quietly distancing himself from the Iraqi Islamic Party–closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood–to form the secular Civil Gathering for Reform. An alliance with Jabouri helps Allawi highlight popular support for secular rule, while capitalizing on Jabouri’s prominent stature to draw Sunni votes particularly in home province of Diyala as well as Baghdad. Meanwhile, the inclusion of Mutlaq–a secular Sunni and founding member of Allawi’s Iraqiyya coalition of 2011– signals Allawi’s intent to recreate a similar coalition despite the existence of power struggles between its prominent figures that eventually contributed to its collapse. The inclusion of Mutlaq also allows Allawi to draw the Sunni vote from Anbar–Mutlaq’s home province.

Allawi’s alliance is set to compete with Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi’s Iraqi Decision Coalition for Sunni votes. Allawi has been a political and ideological rival of Nujaifi since the collapse of their Iraqiyya coalition. Power sharing disputes, Allawi’s dwindling chances of securing the premiership and differences on Iraqiyya’s future strategy antagonized tensions between the two leaders and contributed to the collapse of the coalition after the 2010 elections. The rivalry also reflects regional political divisions, with Allawi backing the Saudi Arabia-Egypt axis and Nujaifi backing the Turkey-Qatar axis. Allawi also rejected Nujaifi’s push for increased autonomy of Sunni areas post-ISIS, stressing his support for Iraqi territorial integrity. Jabouri is also a major political rival of Nujaifi, as both lead competing wings within the main Sunni bloc in the CoR the Sunni Alliance of Forces. Jabouri and Nujaifi disagreed on the post-ISIS Sunni vision for Iraq. Jabouri called for facilitating talks with Shi’a parties to reach national consensus and Nujaifi called for confidence building measures on limiting Iranian influence, demographic changes in Sunni areas and freeing Sunni prisoners.  

Allawi may intensify efforts to sway support from nationalist Shi’a during post-election premiership talks. Allawi’s inability to draw cross-sectarian support particularly from Shi’a parties contributed to the failure of his 2011 bid for the premiership. He will likely look to rectify this issue by leveraging his ideological proximity to Sadrists in order to sway their support for his premiership bid. Allawi supported the 2016 Sadrist protest movement to institute anti-corruption reforms. Allawi also backed the unsuccessful Sadrist protest campaign to overhaul the electoral process through the selection of a non-politicized electoral commission and the passage of an electoral law that does not favor pre-existing dominant parties. Allawi also supported Sadrist calls for a technocratic, non-sectarian based form of government. Additionally, Allawi has joined Sadr’s identification of Iranian-backed proxies within the PMF as “shameless militias.” Allawi’s desire to maintain political independence and maneuverability likely prevented him from entering into what was expected to be a near pre-election alliance with the Sadrists.

The Vice President may seek Kurdish support for his premiership ambitions. He could do this by leveraging his historical ties with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and his support for Baghdad-Arbil dialogue to prevent further military action following the October 16 military takeover of disputed territories by Iraqi forces. Support for the Kurds during and after the September 25 2017 Kurdish referendum period came at a political cost, leading Allawi to pursue a nuanced approach to his relationship with both sides. Allawi, while deeming the timing of the Kurdish independence referendum “inappropriate,” blamed Baghdad for failing to address Kurdish power sharing concerns at an earlier stage. Allawi also blamed Baghdad for not participating in post-referendum talks that he attempted to sponsor with unidentified regional Arab countries. Allawi also stated military operations in disputed territories included the presence of Iranian forces, particularly in Kirkuk. He has appeared to dismiss Baghdad’s accusations of KDP corruption. Allawi also supports maintaining the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of the federal Iraqi budget at 17%–an agreement that he secured in 2004 during his brief tenure as Prime Minister.

Allawi may be an alternative premiership option compatible with U.S interests in Iraq. Allawi maintains friendly ties to the U.S and rejected Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs. Allawi also maintains strong ties to the KRG; he stressed the resolution of the Arbil-Baghdad disagreements must be constitutional and within the framework of a united Iraq. Allawi also maintains strong ties with U.S regional partners in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.