The disappearance of President Jalal Talabani from Iraqi political life could prove a turning point for the volatile nation, heralding a shift away from transactional politics and toward sectarian chaos — even as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki insisted Saturday that a Syria-style revolt “will not happen.”
The Kurdish politician has a soft touch and had seemed to help contain Maliki’s authoritarian instincts. But since suffering a stroke six weeks ago, Talabani has been absent from the scene, denying a still-molten Iraqi political culture its single most respected voice. In the meantime, Maliki has been bitterly alienating minority Sunnis who were already convinced they had no legitimate say in national affairs, their power and prominence in society having tanked since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
This Sunni despondency, in turn, boosts efforts by militant Islamic insurgents to tear the entire society apart.
Talabani, however, is a diamond in the rough. In a political culture where ethnocentrism reigns, he stands for a different path. If not exactly a close ally of the Shiite prime minister, he did help ward off a vote of no confidence against Maliki last year. Though a member of Iraq’s oft-neglected Kurdish minority, Talabani functioned as a neutral powerbroker, an untainted voice in a toxic environment.
He was never afraid to get his hands dirty in the past, whether by sheltering a Sunni vice president on the run from the government or by providing Kurdish troops as a buffer to smooth over sectarian conflict near Baghdad. Though it is still too soon to eulogize Talabani, whose health remains complicated but not completely hopeless, his exit seems near at hand. All the more worrying, considering that in Iraq’s young democracy, the relative calm that immediately followed the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 looks like it may have been the high-water mark. Indeed, at times it seems that the only question left for Iraq’s mainstream political actors is: how much worse can things get?