Since Nouri al-Maliki first became prime minister of Iraq in April 2006, a recurring talking point about his time in office has been that his days are numbered. Indeed, in a paper I wrote for the Middle East Review of International Affairs quarterly journal in the summer of this year, I cast severe doubt on whether the Iraqi premier would remain in power until the expiry of his second term in 2014.
Now, however, I am no longer so skeptical of al-Maliki's abilities to retain his position. Three reasons lie behind my change of heart.
A weak and divided opposition: The institutionalized sectarianism in Iraqi political life and personal power struggles (some of which go back decades) among the elite mean that coalition alliances are vital for any faction vying for power. While al-Maliki has built a rather loose coalition enlisting the support of the Sadrists and the Kurdish parties, the main opposition bloc- al-Iraqiya- has been marred by numerous splinters, which in turn are divided by infighting.
For example, in March 2011, the 'White Iraqi National Movement' (WINM) was formed by eight disaffected members of Ayad Allawi's bloc. The WINM's chairman is Hassan al-Allawi, who recently declared his support for the creation of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq's north. Unfortunately, Alia Nuseif, the spokesperson for WINM, sharply rebuked al-Allawi in response and affirmed that 'al-Allawi's statement represents him and does not reflect the opinion of our bloc.'
It is of course true that over the past couple of months al-Maliki has suffered defeats in parliament over his efforts to control both the Electoral Commission and the anti-corruption Integrity Commission. However, as analyst Reidar Visser of the blog 'Iraq and Gulf Analysis' points out, the vote against al-Maliki in the latter case only succeeded 'because it focused on a single anti-Maliki clause that attacked him personally.'
On the other hand, consensus on broader political issues against the premier does not exist, such that any attempt to dismiss the government through a no-confidence vote would almost certainly fall well short of the 163 out of 248 absolute majority required.
Pragmatic concessions to political allies: In particular, al-Maliki knows how to keep the Kurdish parties in his coalition contented. This has been most apparent in the affair regarding the re-deployment of Peshmerga militiamen at the end of the summer in the Khanaqin district of Diyala province. The pretext for this move was to crack down on insurgents supposedly because the Iraqi security forces were not doing anything about the problem.
In reality, Khanaqin is one of the key disputed territories in Iraq's north, and the aim of the Kurdish parties is to annex the district, a goal that needs to be understood in light of the fact that historically the Kurds have a legitimate claim to these areas, which under Saddam Hussein were subject to an Arabization policy.
In any case, al-Maliki acquiesced to the Peshmerga initiative despite the nationalist image he cultivated of himself during the provincial elections in 2008. As Joel Wing of 'Musings on Iraq' notes, al-Maliki's concession 'can keep the Kurds happy, while not really changing much. The district is already under Kurdish administration, and security is largely unchanged so al-Maliki could let this go.'
Keeping al-Sadr in check: Of all al-Maliki's coalition allies, the ones who have proven to be the biggest thorns in the premier's side are the Sadrists, most notably on the issue of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq as part of the 31 December 2011 deadline stipulated by the Status of Forces Agreement. The anti-American cleric distinguished himself on more than one occasion by threatening to re-activate his 'Mahdi Army' militia should U.S. forces stay beyond this year.
Nonetheless, al-Sadr was quickly cajoled into toning down his rhetoric and backing off his threats once al-Maliki, who would prefer for some American troops to stay at least to provide further training for the Iraqi security forces, launched what Wing terms a 'false offensive' against the Iranian-backed Special Groups in Maysan province in July.
The prime minister clearly wanted to remind al-Sadr that he has on his side the Iraqi security forces, and that any attempt on the cleric's part to revive militant activity could prove disastrous as when the Mahdi Army was forced to disband under an Iranian-brokered ceasefire in early 2008 following the Iraqi-led 'Operation Charge of the Knights' against the Shi'a militants in and around Basra.
Thus, the Sadrist opposition to the U.S. presence has been reduced to mere complaints of words, as all the other factions have agreed to allow a small contingent of U.S. forces to remain after the deadline as 'trainers' for the Iraqi army.
If politics is foremost about retaining power, al-Maliki has proved himself to be a masterful politician. At the same time, his ability to hold on to and consolidate his power base has given rise to some worryingly authoritarian tendencies.
This is especially so in his ongoing attempts to control the Defense Ministry (contrary to the compromise agreement forged by Massoud Barzani in December 2010), as well as the indefinite delays in allowing the police (who answer to local governors, not the premier) to assume responsibility for security in Iraqi cities instead of the army. No wonder then that al-Maliki has a well-grounded image as a typical Middle Eastern autocrat.