Maliki muscles into a 2nd term in Iraq
Baghdad - Adroit horse-trading and sheer tenacity secured Iraq's leader a second term, but his success at enforcing his will raises questions about Iraq's democratic future as it wrestles to overcome a legacy of dictatorship.
Nuri al-Maliki, the Shi'ite incumbent, survived an eight-month battle to preside this week over a deal under which Iraq's Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni political factions will to some extent share power in a national partnership government.
He managed to include his arch rival, former premier Iyad Allawi and his Sunni-backed Iraqiya alliance, in the new government while at the same time shoving Allawi and his ambitions for high office firmly aside.
Iraqiya, which was the actual vote winner in the election on March 7 after winning strong support from minority Sunnis, will be the junior partner in government.
"There's no question about the fact that Maliki's come out the winner," said Gala Riani, Middle East analyst with consultant IHS Global Insight.
Maliki - not well known when he was first handed the premiership in 2006 as a compromise candidate following long government formation talks - has reinforced his growing stature as a skilful political operator.
But many Sunnis feel Iraq's Shi'ite majority cheated them of power that was rightfully theirs after Iraqiya's election win, and complain that US-imposed democracy has replaced Saddam Hussein's Sunni dictatorship with a Shi'ite strongman.
"These are historical echoes that continue to be important for Iraq. People are always going to be very worried about the possibility of one figure centralising a great deal of power," Riani said.
"At the same time, the country needs a strong leadership."
Allawi, a secular Shi'ite who was premier in Iraq's 2004 - 2005 transitional government, was unable to build a governing coalition despite winning two more seats than Maliki.
Maliki managed in his first term to turn even allies into foes through occasional hints of authoritarian tendencies.
Yet his powers of persuasion and tenacity saw other factions align themselves with him for lack of a better option during a political vacuum after the March election that a stubborn Sunni Islamist insurgency tried to exploit with violence.
With the help of a lukewarm ally in Iran, Maliki won the support of anti-US Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a former foe whose Mehdi army militia was crushed by Maliki in 2008.
He then won over the Kurdish minority, and enough Sunni lawmakers to be able to push Iraqiya to bend to his will.
"Maliki's strategy appears to have been to simply present himself as the most likely prime ministerial candidate," said David Bender, Middle East analyst for Eurasia Group.
"As Iraq's political limbo dragged on through the summer, it became increasingly clear that Maliki wasn't the first choice, but he was the only viable choice, the only figure that everyone could make a deal with."
Maliki, who seems quick to anger and has a long memory for grievances, built his reputation on pulling Iraq back from the brink of civil war following the sectarian slaughter of 2006.
He campaigned as a strong leader who got things done, willing to take on both Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militia.
His government will most likely start off quite weak, with discord and mistrust among its diverse partners.
But analysts said Maliki could be expected at some point to start testing his wings and asserting his authority.
"One potential long-term scenario is that once he is confirmed, Maliki will try again what he did in 2008, that is develop an independent power base without his coalition partners such as the Kurds and the Sadrists, and once more become a strongman ruler," said Reidar Visser of Iraq-focused website www.historiae.org.