A colorless and unpopular figure makes for a convenient choice of prime minister in Iraq’s fractious political climate but will the country benefit, asks Hussain Abdul-Hussain


A trend has been established for the selection of Iraqi prime minister. In their bid to bloc their rivals, political heavyweights agree on whoever they think is weakest. Former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, then a lightweight politician, rose to the top spot after his predecessors, Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim Jaafari, had become deadlocked in their race for prime minister. Similarly, Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi rose from obscurity after Maliki’s struggle with his rivals had reached a dead end.

Iraq’s election last summer resulted in four roughly equal-sized Shia parliamentary blocs. Adel Abdul-Mahdi — who did not even run for election — was chosen from outside parliament, for the first time in over a decade, to become prime minister, months after heated negotiations had failed to produce one. Those who threw their support behind Abdul-Mahdi did so because they believed that a political no-one could not possibly threaten their leadership.

While it is still too early to tell whether Abdul-Mahdi will follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and establish his own power base, Iraq’s prime minister designate looks substantially different. For a starter, all predecessors were elected legislators, which suggests that they enjoyed a minimum popularity and understood how populism works. Abdul-Mahdi is different. He has been unpopular all along, and only became prime minister because he tends to agree with everyone on everything.

“He has been unpopular all along, and only became prime minister because he tends to agree with everyone on everything.”

Compared to other governments in the region, Abdul-Mahdi would be the equivalent of many colorless, tasteless and virtually powerless politicians who became prime ministers, like in Lebanon, where the likes of Shafiq Wazzan and Salim Hoss became prime ministers after the heavyweights had failed to agree on appointing one of their own. Wazzan and Hoss presided over Lebanon’s worst crises. They remained irrelevant throughout their tenures. Today, only a handful of Lebanese remember them.

Over the past two decades, Abdul-Mahdi has invested much more time and energy in courting Iraq’s powerful oligarchs than building a popular power base. This means that as a prime minister, Abdul-Mahdi owes his jobs to the same corrupt blocs, whose corruption he claims he plans to eradicate.

Without a popular base outside parliament, and without a bloc of his own inside it, Abdul-Mahdi’s term will remain incumbent on the approval of his patrons. Should one or more of the powerful oligarchs — Moqtada Sadr, Abadi, Maliki or Hadi al Ameri among others — lose faith in Abdul-Mahdi, his position might become untenable.

Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi speaks to reporters after meeting President Jalal Talabani and Vice President Ghazi al-Yawar (R) in Baghdad in Baghdad on September 7, 2005 (Ceerwan Aziz/POOL/AFP)

While it is always good to keep the chief executive accountable to legislators and on his toes, in the case of Abdul-Mahdi, such a weak leader may be unable to enact the policies that push Iraq forward. Corruption will remain rampant, security unstable and the infrastructure poor.

On regional issues, Abdul-Mahdi will probably try to accommodate competing forces, without taking sides, for fear that falling out with any foreign player — whether America, Saudi Arabia or Iran — might cost him his job.

So far, Abdul-Mahdi, an economist by training, has been hailed as a “technocrat,” the magic word Iraqis use in the hope that it can rid them of partisanship, corruption and nepotism.

“[W]ithout political muscle, there is little any specialized ‘technocrat’ can do to enact good policies”

But without political muscle, there is little any specialized “technocrat” can do to enact good policies.

Judging by the Lebanese experience, Hoss was an economics PhD holder who had worked as deputy chief of the Lebanese central bank, before getting his call to head his first cabinet. But without political muscle, Hoss could do little. Similarly, Abdul-Mahdi may carry some favor with his sponsors, but only for the very first weeks or months of his term. Once time passes with little success to show for, the honeymoon will be over, and Abdul-Mahdi will become the prime minister who will probably remain in place until the 2022 election, only because those who want him out cannot agree on a substitute.

Allowing a militia leader to become Iraq’s prime minister was a disaster averted. But the appointment of Abdul-Mahdi may be the second worst thing that can happen to Iraq.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily al Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.