HAIDER AL-ABADI, the prime minister of Iraq (pictured), has a strong case for re-election. He has overseen the defeat of Islamic State (IS), which once held vast portions of the country. He denied a Kurdish push for independence last year. Oil production is near record levels and rising. And he has learned to play foreign powers off against each other. No wonder he calls his inclusive electoral list of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds the “Victory Alliance”.
But as Iraqis go to the polls to elect a new parliament on May 12th, many will be thinking about the economy. Unemployment is up and salaries are down. GDP per person has fallen from almost $7,000 in 2013 to under $5,000 last year. Much of this is a result of the war with IS. Mr Abadi, though, has failed to tackle corruption, increase transparency or reform the system by which ministries are divvied up (and plundered) by sect and ethnicity. He shies away from a showdown with fellow Shia politicians who have ruled Iraq since America installed them 15 years ago.
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Mr Abadi’s manifesto speaks of a Vision 2030, based on the economic reform plan of neighbouring Saudi Arabia, but it is bereft of detail. He regurgitates old platitudes about addressing poor governance, removing corrupt politicians and depoliticising the civil service. Many Iraqis yearn for fresh thinking. “It’s like Britain after the second world war,” says Muhammad al-Moumin, an Iraqi television presenter. “People appreciated what Churchill did, but they wanted a change of leader for the period of peace.”
Even among Mr Abadi’s base in the Shia south there is growing disenchantment with the government. In the previous three elections, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top cleric, declared voting a sacred duty. But on May 4th his representative, Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, suggested that this time it was acceptable to abstain. “Many of those who were elected or appointed to high positions in the government abused their power and took part in spreading corruption and squandering public money,” said Mr Karbalai. “Avoid falling into the trap of those who are corrupt and those who have failed.”
Voters credit Mr Abadi for dumping the Shia-chauvinist rhetoric once used by his Dawa party. His manifesto does not mention Islam. “Our project is to build a political bloc that transcends sect and ethnicity,” he said in the Kurdish city of Erbil. Sunnis cheer when he criticises the leaders of Shia militias. Unusually, his list includes candidates from all of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
Other Shia parties have adopted his tactics, downplaying religion and putting Sunnis and Kurds on their lists. Iraqis question their sincerity. Many suspect Shia politicians will close ranks after the election, choose a prime minister and give their own people top jobs. Members of Dawa, who are competing on two rival lists—Mr Abadi’s and that of Nuri al-Maliki, a former prime minister—might put aside their differences in order to hang on to the premiership, which the party has held since 2005. “At heart Abadi is a second-tier leader of a chauvinist party that has Shia Islamism as its raison d’être,” says Raad Alkadiri of Boston Consulting Group.
Reinstalling Mr Abadi is unlikely to satisfy voters and risks fomenting more unrest. After the past two elections there were mass demonstrations. The ayatollahs, who fostered and protected the country’s transition to democracy, increasingly sound like an opposition. An alarming number of Iraqis would prefer to have a strongman in charge. In order to mollify the public, Iraq’s next prime minister must show that he is serving them, not just the old elite.