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Is Iraqi PM counting on Sunni, Kurdish votes for re-election?

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appears to be counting on Sunni and Kurdish votes to win the next election, with visits to traditional Kurdish and Sunni strongholds.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi shakes hands with his supporters during election campaign in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq April 25, 2018. Picture taken April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed - RC19D5B12000

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraqi Kurdistan — "Abadi did not come to Sulaimaniyah to improve our economic situation and hold corrupt officials in the Kurdistan Regional Government accountable," Abu Ali, 57, a taxi driver in the city of Sulaimaniyah, told Al-Monitor about the last visit to the city by Iraqi Prime Minister and head of the Victory Alliance Haider al-Abadi.

Abadi surprised everyone April 26 by showing up in Sulaimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan to attend the Victory Alliance conference as part of the alliance's election campaign ahead of the legislative elections slated for May 12.

Not only did he visit the city of Sulaimaniyah, which has not severed ties with the central government in Baghdad, but he also headed the next day to Erbil, the city that pushed for the Kurdish independence referendum and is seen as the stronghold for separatists calling for secession from Iraq. Abadi also toured Kirkuk, a city Iraqi forces took back from Kurdish peshmerga forces in the wake of the 2017 referendum, and which Kurds still pledge not to give up on.

Abadi is the first Iraqi premier to visit the capital of the Kurdistan Region as well as Sulaimaniyah and Kirkuk as part of an election campaign. No previous Iraqi prime minister has visited these governorates in the framework of their election campaigns. Abadi's move is also seen as a bold one because it comes only months after the crisis between Baghdad and Erbil over the independence referendum.

It appears that Abadi is banking on the votes of citizens who are continuously holding protests against the KRG over suspended salaries and issues with freedoms, as it seems many of those people will not vote for the main political parties in the Kurdistan Region.

"Abadi wants to send a message to the international community that he stands behind the unity of Iraq and [he seeks] to gain the votes of citizens who are angry with the KRG, which is his legitimate right," Hoshya Malu, a Kurdish writer and political analyst, told Al-Monitor.

"Abadi's visit to Erbil and Sulaimaniyah did not turn out as large of a crowd as was expected. Turnout for both events was low because Abadi does not have a strong popular base in the Kurdistan Region, especially after the events of Oct. 16, when federal forces entered Kirkuk," Malu added.

Abadi is trying to win some Kurdish votes in the elections or at least have a political foothold in the Kurdistan Region so as to be able to form what he called "the national bloc." In his endeavors and before his visit to the Kurdish governorates, Abadi traveled to the Sunni governorates — another first step for Iraqi prime ministers, who usually just stick to Baghdad and the governorates in the south.

Abadi's visit to Anbar and Diyala, which lasted a few days, was not publicly part of his election campaign — except for Anbar, where he opened headquarters for his coalition. Instead, Abadi focused on service and community visits in his capacity as prime minister and not as the head of the Victory Alliance — which it seems will secure him a few Sunni votes as he is also the commander in chief of the armed forces that led the war against the Islamic State (IS).

"Abadi is seeking to gain votes from the Sunni community after realizing that he had lost the electoral alliances and lists that are popular in central and southern Iraq, especially the alliance with the Popular Mobilization Units that contributed to liberating Iraq from IS," parliament member and candidate for the al-Fatah alliance, Amir al-Fayez, said during Abadi's visit to Salahuddin governorate.

These visits, however, beg the questions: What is Abadi getting out of them? Is he ready to clash electorally with major Shiite parties in the central and southern parts of the country while banking on the votes of Sunnis and Kurds?

In this context, Adnan al-Sarraj, a close associate of Abadi, said that the prime minister "wanted to form a large national coalition away from nationalism and sectarianism. This is why he went to Kurdish and Sunni areas, as he believes his alliance will [win] some seats there."

Sarraj added, "Abadi might get 15 seats in the Sunni areas, but in the Kurdish areas, nothing is clear yet — which probably means that there is nothing in store for him. His visits in these areas do not mean that he is scared or concerned about competition in Shiite areas."

Zana Saeed, a parliament member for the Kurdistan Alliance, concurred, saying, "Abadi will not get any seat in Sulaimaniyah because of the people's objection."

The war against IS is Abadi's strongest card with both Sunnis and Kurds. The IS threat was imminent in the Kurdish areas as the organization was approaching Erbil in 2012, while it remained four years in the Sunni areas, which were largely destroyed.

Abadi's electoral list in the Kurdish and Sunni areas is an attempt to prove that he has a presence also outside of the Shiite framework, unlike his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki. This is also to lobby and gain international support as a prime minister for a second term in a row.

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