BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Few outside Iraq knew the name Haider al-Abadi in 2014 when he was plucked from relative obscurity to lead a nation in chaos.
A compromise candidate floated after his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki was sidelined in a power struggle, Abadi became prime minister in September that year, two months after Islamic State ran rampant across Iraq and declared its so-called caliphate.
Four years on, Abadi has defied the expectations of an army of skeptics.
He has declared victory over Islamic State, diffused sectarian tensions fanned by Maliki, thawed frosty relations with Sunni Arab neighbors, and maintained Iraq’s fragile unity in the face of an ill-fated Kurdish bid for independence.
Abadi has also balanced the competing and colliding interests of his two main backers, Iran and the United States.
A former electrical engineer once in charge of servicing BBC elevators during years of voluntary exile in the United Kingdom, Abadi is banking on his achievements in office to win a second term at May 12 elections.
But victory is far from certain.
Like all Iraqi prime ministers since Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003, Abadi, 66, belongs to the country’s Shi’ite Arab majority. But this year the Shi’ite vote, typically enough to produce a clear victor who can claim the right to form a governing coalition, is split.
Besides Maliki, who appeals to Shi’ites wary of power-sharing with minority Sunnis and Kurds, Abadi is also up against Hadi al-Amiri, a military commander seen as a war hero for helping defeat Islamic State.
Knowing he cannot rely on Shi’ite votes alone, Abadi is looking to draw upon a wider voter base. He has been campaigning throughout Iraq with his cross-sectarian “Victory Alliance” list, the only one to run in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
Badr al-Fahl, a Sunni lawmaker from Salahuddin province seeking his fourth term in parliament, said he chose to run on Abadi’s list because it was cross-sectarian and inclusive.
“This is the first list since 2003 to run in all 18 provinces with Sunni, Shi’ite, Kurdish, Christian and Yazidi candidates,” he told Reuters at the Victory Alliance headquarters in Tikrit. “Abadi does not use sectarian rhetoric and wants to build the country. The next phase is all about reconstruction and building.”
Fahl said Abadi had given political allies in Sunni provinces complete freedom over selecting the candidates on his list. In Salahuddin, for example, the Victory list is all Sunni.
Abadi even went on a rare tour of Kurdish provinces last month although few rate his chances highly of recruiting Kurds, who are still seething over his crackdown on the semi-autonomous region after September’s independence referendum.
Many of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs also feel lingering resentment towards the Shi’ite-led government following the war and devastation that mostly hit their areas with the advent of Islamic State.
So while many prefer Abadi to other Shi’ite politicians because he has signaled a move away from sectarianism, that may not necessarily translate into votes for his candidates.
Abadi also faces criticism about persistent corruption, tough economic conditions exacerbated by fighting and the austerity measures his cabinet introduced, as well as his pro-business stance in a country where most people are state employees and distrust the private sector.
“Abadi is a cultured man and a conciliatory politician, but he also brought us austerity,” said Mohamed Ghadban, a student in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf.
Mindful of this weakness, the prime minister’s campaign narrative has also focused on the defeat of Islamic State.
Abadi declared victory in December after a brutal three-year campaign to free Iraq from the Islamist militants who at one point controlled a third of the country.
To do so, he oversaw simultaneous and conflicting support from the United States and Iran, each awkwardly sidestepping the other in the widening regional conflict to defeat IS.
As the U.S.-led coalition focused on rebuilding and training the depleted Iraqi security forces while launching near-daily air strikes, Iran-backed Shi’ite militias were embedding deeper into the fabric of Iraq’s society and state apparatus while providing vital military support to government forces.
Abadi’s deft juggling of Iran and the United States amid escalating tensions over the Iran nuclear deal, has made him the preferred candidate for Western allies, who have little to show since invading Iraq 15 years ago beyond violence, endemic corruption and defective state institutions.
Abadi has also gained praise for courting Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors, a strategy diametrically opposed by Maliki.
Though Abadi’s supporters and foes agree he is not a natural politician, they say he has grown in confidence since his nervous start four years ago. However, he is seen as an indecisive leader, preferring to deliberate at length with advisers and lawmakers.
Three Western diplomats in Baghdad said their governments would find Abadi the easiest candidate to work with but that very pliability is seen as a weakness by some constituents who consider him a foreign stooge.
“Abadi is a decent man, but he’s not in control of his own choices,” said Falah Abdullah, a 65-year-old retired police officer in Qayyarah, 60 km (40 miles) south of Mosul. “He alternates between what Iran wants and what America wants.”
This has much to do with his predecessor’s legacy. A polarizing figure, Maliki’s specter looms large in the 2018 election, particularly given the split in the Shi’ite vote.
Despite many blaming him for losing swathes of territory to Islamic State and institutionalizing corruption in Iraq’s bloated ministries, Maliki is still seen by his considerable base of supporters as a strong leader who stood up to the West and defends Shi’ite interests.
Abadi also faces stiff competition from Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organisation, Iraq’s biggest Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia, who is also campaigning on a victory narrative.
Amiri was commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a coalition of Iranian-backed militias that played a large role in defeating Islamic State after a call to arms by Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
While Abadi is respected by many Iraqis, something few in the country’s political elite can claim, a victory narrative can only carry him so far. Even some who plan to vote for Abadi say they’re doing it out of pragmatism rather than enthusiasm.
“Abadi is the least terrible option. I want him to remain prime minister so we can have peace and rebuild Iraq,” said 32-year-old Ahmed al-Hadi, a supermarket cashier in Baghdad.
Reporting by Raya Jalabi and Ahmed Aboulenein; editing by Samia Nakhoul and David Clarke