There’s been talk of pushing through a no-confidence vote against the cabinet of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for some time now. Ostensibly, the Kurds are responding to Maliki’s provocation of moving into their own turf by extending his patronage network among Kurdish tribal leaders, but the real reason is that Maliki has become too good at playing the role of a statesman, and the prevailing fear among a myriad, and often conflicting, set of political actors is that if they don’t move to clip his wings soon, Maliki will become a permanent fixture at the helm of power, propelled by incumbency and rising popularity.

Before stepping into the limelight, no one would have envisioned Maliki as prime ministerial material. He had been a Da’awa Party has-been, one of many who failed to unite the various offshoots and come out on top. Maliki couldn’t even count a handful of supporters who had latched onto his once rising star. Alone and increasing isolated in Damascus during the Saddam years, he had grown accustomed to lowered expectations. Which is why he was happy to land a job as unglamorous as that of one of two deputies to the head of the De-Ba’athification Commission when it was first established in January 2004; arguing over who gets what office space, and how a dozen or so jobs and official cars get allocated.

An oft-repeated refrain in the western media is that Maliki became prime minister after clinching the support of the Sadrists. That is simply not true: the Sadrists didn’t mind Maliki as long as he wasn’t an acolyte of their nemesis, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim. They would have voted for then Prime Minister Ja’afari to keep the job as the political wrangling was underway in the spring of 2006, but the Americans stood dead set against him. In this melee Maliki appeared as the dark horse candidate of Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s office, marked for greatness by the Sistani’s eldest son, Muhammad Ridha, who fancied himself a kingmaker. The younger Sistani was sold on Maliki by one of Ja’afari’s own advisors, who saw in Maliki a figurehead that he and Muhammad Ridha could manipulate and rule through. The Americans, after despairing of getting their own preferred candidates to the top post, shrugged and gave Maliki’s new cabinet their blessing.

A weak prime minister was to everyone’s advantage; it allowed the Americans and the various Iraqi parties that took part in the coalition government to push through their own agendas without the pesky nuisance of coordinating it all. Ministries were divvied up and turned into the private turfs of whatever parties controlled them. Maliki was a distant and isolated man, hiding behind reinforced concrete and concentric circles of advisors.

But all that changed when Maliki signed on to a bold plan put together by the Iraqi Army to retake Basra from militia control and assert the central state’s claim to that province’s abundant resources in March 2008. Maliki emerged victorious, and could rightly claim that he had restored confidence in the government.

Since then, Maliki can no longer be dismissed as anyone’s marionette—he had come into his own, and he had an overflowing budget surplus to spread around, buying up loyalties and projecting the image of a national, post-sectarian leader. Watching him a few days ago giving a televised speech at a campaign rally ahead of the provincial elections on Saturday, one could not get over the fact that Maliki, sans teleprompter, gave a pitch perfect speech that is certain to draw whatever hesitant voter out there towards a platform of reconstruction and firming up the rule of law. In fact, his slate is called ‘Restoring the Rule of Law’—Maliki’s strongest selling point after the success in Basra.

So that leaves everyone else worried: If Maliki wins by a landslide in the Shia south and in Baghdad, as he’s expected to, then that positions him to do so again in the parliamentary elections at the end of 2009. It would be very hard to make a no-confidence vote excusable against a popular prime minister. If he is left unchallenged by a no-confidence vote, then the only thing his political rivals can hope for is that the global financial crisis and what it means to Iraq’s dwindling oil revenue would so severely expose Maliki to criticism that he’d have to take the blame for the nose-dive of the Iraqi economy.

However, if he fails to win big in the provincial elections, then that would render him the same old Maliki, unthreatening and not going anywhere, and it would be useful to keep him at his current post.

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