Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is not only Iraq’s top spiritual leader for the country’s Shiites, but is considered one of the most influential clerics for Shiites throughout the world.
As political blocs were preparing to begin their election campaigns on April 30, Sistani, who is a “marja” or a “religious reference” and whose sole priority is to guide his followers, announced in March that he would remain neutral, saying he was“standing at the same distance for all candidates.”
However, Sistani, who warned about establishing Iranian-style clerical rule much earlier on and who is seen as a moderate, urged voters to distinguish between “good” and “bad.”
He further called on his followers to choose more sincere candidates, in a country marred by stories of corruption, including among high officials.
But Sistani appeared to have revoked his impartiality on April 13 when he met with the powerful Iraqi religious figure Moqtada al-Sadr, whose movement is represented by the Ahrar Coalition, which has 40 seats in the 325-member parliament.
Sistani's meeting with Sadr, who previously called Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki a “dictator,” was seen as a boost to Ahrar and a blow to the premier, who is seeking a third term.
Further, during their meeting, Sistani and Sadr discussed the dire situation in Iraq, as well as how they might promote Islamic and national unity.
But their discussions occurred after Sistani refused to meet Maliki in early April, when the prime minister was visiting the holy city of Najaf in an attempt to garner potential votes and support.
While these episodes indicate that Maliki is losing ground because he is not backed by Sistani, analysts do not consider this to be Maliki’s only reason for seeing less support among voters.
“For sure, Sistani's not welcoming Maliki will affect his standing in elections,” Baghdad-based analyst Ahmed al-Abyadh said.
Another Baghdad analyst, Adnan Hussain, added, “Of course this will affect Maliki’s standing in the elections, especially since more than 50 percent of Iraq’s population is Shiite.”
“For this reason, Maliki was trying to allude to his being accepted by the marja’iya in Najaf, especially by Sistani,” Hussain noted.
Hussain also did not see Maliki as a “strong” candidate, citing his poor political performance as the main impediment to his being elected to a third term.
“Maliki has failed in his second term, especially since Shiites and Arab Sunnis are still suffering in the country, and are much poorer in comparison to the Kurds.”
“We see no evidence that the oil money is improving Shiite’s living standards,” Hussain added.
But Sistani's disapproving of Maliki “will, for sure, affect his attempts to influence public opinion.”
“Marja’iya does not want to give Maliki credit,” Hussain added. “Maliki is facing far more challenges to be re-elected than before.”
“Under Maliki, Iraq has experienced more problems; he is faring far worse than four years ago,” he noted.
However, Arbil-based analyst Abdulghani Ali Yahya likened Maliki’s attempting to win a third term to that of AlgerianPresident Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Bouteflika recently was elected Algeria’s president for the fourth time, despite strong opposition against him and his obvious poor health, as he was recovering from a stroke and had to cast his vote while sitting in a wheelchair
“Without a doubt, Cistern’s stance on Maliki indicates he doesn’t stand at a similar distance from everyone,” Yahya said
But, he added, “This will not affect Maliki’s State of Law [bloc] standing, because Maliki is in charge of the army and armed forces,” he said.
In recent years, Maliki scored victories against his political adversaries.
For example, in the 2010 elections the Shiite Ayad Allawi, who hailed from the secular, yet Sunni-backed Iraqiya List bloc, won by one seat over Maliki. However, Maliki, who also heads the Islamist Hizb al-Dawa party, was declared the new premiere when he formed alliances with other Shiite blocs.
Yet, after the 2010 elections Allawi’s power was weakened when his Iraqiya List splintered into three coalitions. Some former Iraqiya List parliamentarians even joined Maliki’s coalition.
“In recent years, Maliki was able to join forces with people who were with Allawi. Allawi, who won 91 seats, is now left with 30 to 40 seats in parliament.”
According to Yahya, the prime minister has “suppressed the Sunnis and he is working to marginalize the Kurds.”
He also spoke of Washington’s and Tehran’s support for Maliki
Masoud Barazani, the President of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, recently said these two countries, the U.S. and Iran, “are so different in everything, except for their support for Maliki.”
Shiites have changed
While Yahya said Shiites will always form an alliance if they believe they will not win the premiership, Husain highlighted how their being divided will not be in Maliki’s favor. Years ago, Shiites had to agree on who would be the prime minster, “but not anymore,” Hussain said.
Sadrists are followers of Sadr and his Ahrar bloc, while the supreme council belongs to Ammar Abdulaziz al-Hakim, who is heading the Shiite-dominated National Iraqi Alliance coalition, which earned 70 seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections.
“Iraqis are looking forward to a new leadership, a new prime minister to solve their problems, which increased during Maliki’s reign in power,” Hussain added.
At the same time, Iran’s reducing its influence over Iraq’s Shiites seems to be less effective than in the past.
Asharq al-Awsat, in an interview on April 18 with Independent Iraqi parliamentarian Hassan al-Ilwi, quoted him as saying:“Both Sadr and al-Hakim clearly told Iran that they would not accept a third term for Maliki.”
On April 21, Iraqi media reported Sadr also dismissed claims that he will bow to Iranian pressures and go back into politics, after earlier quitting so he could back Maliki.
Another major change Hussain highlighted is that the marja’iya are no longer opposed to seculars.
Yet one marja, named Kadhum al-Haeri, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, prohibiting his followers from voting for seculars.
However, the marja Hussain Ismail al-Sadir, who is considered far more important and a higher rank than the Iran-based Haeri, snubbed the fatwa, saying voters can vote for any candidate who is respectable.
Just as in the 2010 elections, Sistani expressed his neutrality to all competing political blocs, but for 2014 elections he explicitly warned voters to be vigilant and distinguish between “good” candidates, and those who failed to deliver on their campaign promises.SHOW MORE