Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Hassan Rouhani-Iran's Ayatollah Gorbachov, Take 2

Iranians re-elected President Hassan Rouhani this past month in a landslide, as he defeated his nearest challenger, hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, by nearly 19 percentage points. (57.1% to 38.3%)



Many expected a closer election than in 2013, where Rouhani won with 50.71% of the vote against a bitterly divided handful of hardliner candidates, because of the unified hardline coalition behind Raisi. However, Iran’s cities, especially the sprawling behemoth of Tehran turned out in massive numbers for Rouhani, and even hardliner strongholds like Raszavi Khorasan Province only narrowly tilted in favor of Raisi. 
Reform-minded Iranians poured into streets across the country to celebrate. Just as his campaign slogan said, Rouhani would return to work, Again For Iran, until 2021. 
Landslide victories for moderate or reformist candidates in modern Iran are not unheard of. Mohammad Khatami, a politician not unlike Rouhani, won even larger victories in the 1997 and 2001 Presidential elections (69% and 77% respectively), but struggled to gain real traction in pursuing similar goals to Rouhani. While he was followed by Holocaust denying hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ahmadinejad, however, won his victories through a runoff in 2005 against a demoralized and divided moderate/reformist camp and a lukewarm candidate in Akbar Rasfanjani, and his re-election in 2009 led to massive protests across the country amid a strong suspicion the election was rigged in his favor.
Iran is run by an odd hybrid government where, as strange as it may sound, both authoritarianism and democracy play a part. Iranians vote in local, parliamentary, and presidential elections as well as elections to the Assembly of Experts, which chooses the Supreme Leader. How much these votes count, however, depends largely on the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Khamenei is coming up on his 28th year in the office, and his relation to the government often determines how much elected officials can pursue their policy goals. Candidates are also strictly vetted by the Guardian Council, which has a habit of disqualifying many reformists.

Khamenei is a hardliner, but he has allowed President Rouhani space to carry out his policy platform to some success. He is coming up on his 78th birthday and rumors claim he may have prostate cancer, though this is not known for sure. While the Iranian government has kept most speculation about his replacement quiet, Raisi was considered a candidate as was Akbar Rafsanjani. However, Raisi was routed by Rouhani in the presidential election last month, and Rafsanjani died earlier this year. 

There is a possibility Khamenei will die during Rouhani’s second term, ushering in a new era for Iran’s Islamic Republic. The Assembly of Experts, which will elect his successor, has a considerable chunk of reformist representatives, including President Rouhani. 

Iran is unlikely to move away from the Islamic Republic system entirely under Rouhani, but if a new Supreme Leader is chosen, the country may be set on a new path. 

When Mohammad Khatami was elected in a landslide in 1997, some western media sources dubbed him Ayatollah Gorbachov, a nod to the Soviet reformer who eventually became the last leader of the communist empire. Gorbachov was a communist, but he realized things had to change to get the USSR moving again from its stalled and bloated situation in the early to mid-1980s. His reforms, while met with praise, spun out of control and eventually led to the end of the Soviet Union. Khatami made some reforms while President of Iran, but unlike Gorbachov, his reforms did not bring about the demise of the Islamic Republic. In fact, Khatami was relatively ineffective and the political climate when he left office swept a particularly abrasive hardliner to the presidency in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

While technically not in a reformist political party, President Rouhani has slowly but surely become bolder in his criticism regarding government institutions such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Guardian Council. He has slowly but surely worked to re-integrate Iran from its status as a pariah under Ahmadinejad. The economy is growing. Inflation has grinded to a near halt, and the rial, while still not worth much, has at least stopped hurtling towards total worthlessness. 

Rouhani continues a trend of Iranian presidents in the Islamic Republic always winning re-election. Every single elected president in Iran since 1979 has managed to win a second term. 

Iranians are worried about the bellicose rhetoric coming from their old foe the United States, particularly from President Trump, who has dismissed the nuclear deal as “the worst deal ever”. Despite this, Trump has not delved into detail about why the deal is so bad, nor has Washington taken any concrete steps to dismantle it. 

Rouhani, unlike Gorbachov, was able to at the very least stabilize the Iranian economy and put it on a positive path, and the country seems to be very slowly moving away from its most draconian authoritarianism. Rouhani, like Gorbachov, does not seek to destroy the institution he works in (Iran’s Islamic Republic), but he seems to realize the importance of and need for reform in his country. 

Another reformer one could compare Rouhani to is South African President F.W. De Klerk, who set his country on the path towards multiracial democracy after nearly 50 years of apartheid, a venomous and oppressive system of segregation where the overwhelming majority of black South Africans were shunted away from the prosperity enjoyed by the white minority. 

De Klerk only served one term as President, from 1989 to 1994, as his National Party was overwhelmingly defeated in the 1994 elections by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. His legacy of overseeing a peaceful transition away from apartheid tarnished somewhat since 1994 when he went before the Truth and Reconciliation Committee and seemed to deny some of the atrocities committed under the segregationist government, but there is no denying he played an important role in shaping South Africa into the country it is today. 

Because De Klerk oversaw a massive transformation which both came as a surprise and completely changed South Africa in a mere five years and then was voted out of power, perhaps he’s not the best politician to compare to Hassan Rouhani, who has tinkered here and there but largely worked within the boundaries. 

Deng Xiaoping is another leader one could compare Iran’s President to. Deng, after emerging as China’s Paramount Leader in 1978, managed to bring the country towards a limited market economy and greatly increased the Chinese economy’s abilities, paving the way for the powerhouse we know today. Under Deng, Mao Zedong was also demoted from the glorious Chairman to “Seven parts good, three parts bad”, as the staggering hardship endured by the Chinese people during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were acknowledged to some extent. Yet Deng was still the one to give the order to the People’s Liberation Army to clear Tiananmen Square by force on June 4th, 1989. Today, China, while still claiming to follow communism, is more authoritarian socialist or an authoritarian mixed economy.  Likewise, just as Deng ordered his troops to clear pro-democracy protestors, executions in Iran under President Rouhani have risen considerably. 


Rouhani has another four years in office, and assuming the Iranian economy continues to reap the benefits of sanctions relief and diplomatic inroads continue, the country may continue down his path. Democratic institutions have the possibility of strengthening, the theocratic elements of the country may move farther back. Make no mistake, Hassan Rouhani has the chance to be a pivotal leader for his country. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

If Turkey Says No

In less than a month, citizens of the Republic of Turkey will head to the polls to decide on a referendum to fundamentally alter their structure of government.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called a referendum, asking the Turkish people to vote on whether their democracy, which is set up in a parliamentary structure, to change to a presidential system.

A parliamentary system very closely merges the executive and legislative branches of government in the position of Prime Minister, while they are much more separate in a presidential system.
Erdogan, as President, in theory, does not wield a lot of power. Most of the power, again, in theory, is concentrated in the Prime Minister, Binali YıldırımYıldırım, however, is a relatively new prime minister. The previous Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, was dismissed by President Erdoğan, and many speculate that the reason for his removal from office was due to his opposition to the referendum.

Turkey’s current political climate means that this referendum has been full of very passionate campaigning and massive emotion. 

The ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, is the architect of this referendum. A mildly Islamist, right-wing party, it enjoys strong support throughout the Turkish heartlands, which despite Turkey’s official status of secular democracy, are mostly populated by conservative Muslim Turks.

These heartlands, however, are not as heavily populated as other areas of Turkey. The western coastline, where cities like Istanbul and Izmir sit, are strongholds for the Republican People’s Party, which is known by its Turkish initials CHP. A left-wing, Kemalist, nationalist party, the CHP is the strongest party supporting a “No” vote. It gained about 25% of the vote in the last general election, whereas AKP gained 49.5%. Despite its left-wing roots, the CHP has mostly campaigned in recent years on its secularist and nationalist sentiments and strengthening democracy rather than its economic viewpoints in contrast to the AKP’s invoking of Islam.

The pivotal party, however, is neither of these. It’s the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP. The leader of this party, a man named Devlet Bahceli, is campaigning for a Yes vote, but he leads a bitterly divided party. While Bahceli has put his chips in with Erdogan and the AKP and supports a "Yes" vote, many MHP voters are vocally opposed to that decision. The MHP, even though it is quite a bit smaller than both the AKP and CHP, is big enough that it could be the deciding factor in this referendum. If the party’s voting base rejects Bahceli’s decision en masse, the referendum could fail.

In the June and November 2015 Turkish elections, the ruling AKP managed to secure more than 40% of the vote. The CHP pulled in around 25% both times, and the Kurdish interest People's Democratic Party (HDP) and MHP tallied in the low-to-mid teens. 

Polling currently indicates that the referendum could go down to the wire. At the moment, "No" seems to have the lead, but the lead is narrow and there remain a sizable contingent of undecided voters. 

Critics of the referendum have insinuated that this is merely a power-grab by the ruling party. Indeed, Erdoğan would gain a large amount of formally enumerated power if "Yes" wins. 

If Turkey says no, however, it will only be the first act of a major pivot. While not quite on the level of Brexit, the decision to stay with the parliamentary system will shake Turkey’s political climate to its core.

Devlet Bahceli will likely be one of the first to fall. If he supports “Yes”, but most of the MHP voting base checks the “No” box on election day and the referendum fails, he will likely be removed from his post or resign in disgrace. It is estimated that around 50-80% of MHP voters are leaning towards voting no, and only around 20-25% are likely to vote "Yes". Bahceli is even on record as being against the political referendum in the past. If he doesn't get removed, the MHP risks an even bigger loss of popularity. 

President Erdoğan will be thoroughly embarrassed. His supporters will have come off a massive loss, and those who oppose his policies will have put a large roadblock in his way. His resignation is far less likely, though.


The MHP will have a decision to make. Its  recent cooperative role with the AKP is similar to that of a smaller party in a coalition government, and these parties typically do not gain much sympathy with voters. If the referendum fails, the MHP may have to undergo a massive transformation and rebranding after its ignominious partnership with the AKP, which is very well may be forced to abandon. 


That would represent a massive opportunity for the similarly nationalist CHP. While the MHP and CHP differ on many issues, they are both still nationalist. Indeed, the MHP was born from disillusioned CHP party members.

If the MHP falls into disarray, the CHP has an opportunity to reach out to the party’s voters and grow its size, something it seems to be struggling with in previous elections. If CHP and a rebranded MHP partner against the AKP, they could represent a real challenge to the Islamist party in the next election, as their combined vote total was slightly larger than that of the AKP in the June 2015 elections.


The Kurdish Question would still present a daunting challenge to a possible nationalist government. While AKP is not particularly loved or trusted among the Turkish Kurd population in the southeast, they are even more wary of the CHP and certainly the MHP because of the two parties’ nationalist principles. Furthermore, it’s not really clear which party would hold more clout. CHP is bigger, but it would have to compromise with the MHP so as to not lose favor with a possible coalition. The MHP is completely and unequivocally opposed to dialogue with the Kurdish HDP, the CHP is not. Indeed, when the CHP floated the idea of a possible CHP-MHP-HDP government with Bahceli as Prime Minister, Bahceli vehemently refused.

A potential coalition could, however, work to strengthen the democratic institutions within the country by pushing through reforms that would benefit both the Turkish and Kurdish populations, but not brand these reforms as concessions to the PKK terrorist group. One such reform that could work for both would be a lowering of the electoral threshold.

Turkey has dozens of political parties but due to the 10% threshold needed to gain seats in parliament, only four are represented in the Grand National Assembly in Ankara. This makes it difficult for any Kurdish-interest party to get into Parliament because Kurds are a minority everywhere except the southeast of the country. If the threshold could be lowered to say, 5%, greater representation for parties of all types could be had. 

This is, obviously, only one possible reform. But if Turkey says no this coming month, it's in for a serious pivot, and anything could happen. 


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Cheese, Wine and Nationalism: What the Dutch General Election can tell us about France's upcoming Presidential tilt

The cheeseheads (sorry, Wisconsin) have spoken.

Citizens of the Kingdom of the Netherlands went to the polls on March 15, 2017, to elect all 150 members of their House of Representatives, and by extension, a Prime Minister.

With 75% of the votes tallied, the center-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, known by its Dutch initials VVD, has come in first, with around 21% of the vote.

Mark Rutte, the current Prime Minister, will remain Prime Minister.

Behind the VVD, the right-wing populist Party for Freedom (PVV) is in a distant second, with the Christian Democratic Appeal party, slightly more centrist than VVD, is in third, with the socially progressive, economic centrist Democrats 66 in a very close fourth. The Labour Party, once the main left-wing party, slumped badly into seventh, a serious drop from their second-place finish in 2012.

Prime Minister Rutte addressed his cheering supporters upon victory, claiming that “Our message to the Netherlands – that we will hold our course, and keep this country safe, stable and prosperous, got through...this was an evening when after Brexit and Trump, the Netherlands said ‘Stop’ to the wrong sort of populism.”

Many media outlets and polls suggested that the nationalist PVV had a real chance of taking first place in this election because of the refugee crisis and other problems. However, the VVD seemed to gain in the polls at the last minute due to their handling of the recent diplomatic row with Turkey and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Because of the abundance of parties in the Netherlands (eleven different parties won seats in the 2012 election), however, even if the PVV and their controversial leader Geert Wilders  managed to capture the most seats, they would have had massive trouble in forming a government. As it stands now, the VVD, even with their convincing win, will probably have to partner with at least two, perhaps even three or four other parties to form a governing coalition. Both the VVD and CDA claimed they would not govern in coalition with the PVV if they won, which would have made coalition negotiations nearly impossible. 

As it stands, the PVV is in second and while they have improved on their total from 2012, they have not matched their total from 2010. 

Prime Minister Rutte may be exaggerating a bit when he says that the Netherlands has rejected populism. But this election does buck the trend of Brexit and Trump, and so we can draw some interesting conclusions from the results. 

First, anti-establishment fervor like was visible in the United States may not be as powerful when there is such an abundance of parties. As previously mentioned, even if the Party for Freedom had won the most votes, their ability to form a government would have been severely hampered by other parties' unwillingness to govern with them. 

Second, anti-EU sentiment in continental Europe just isn't as strong as it is in countries like the UK. Geert Wilders campaigned partially on the idea of "Nexit", the Netherlands leaving the European Union, and his French counterpart Marine Le Pen has toyed with a similar idea in France. 

This was never likely. Brexit was a monumental leap into uncharted territory for the United Kingdom, and it did not win by that large of a margin-51.9% to 48.1%. If the Netherlands or France did the same it would do serious, perhaps even mortal, damage to the EU. But the Dutch people at large do not want to leave the political union, and the prominent reluctance to take part in the union that Britain was famous for does not exist in the Netherlands. 

This election also shows an important difference between the nationalist right in the US and in Europe. Ethnic nationalism as a political tool, while certainly not unheard of in the US, has not been utilized in the same way in the United States that it has in Europe, since the United States is generally multicultural and has been for almost its entire history. 

Donald Trump's brash rhetoric and appeals to nationalism worked for the Republican Party in 2016, but these sorts of sentiments were on the fringe (though rising) in 2012 under Mitt Romney. Trump, however, managed to channel this anger and discontent in a way previously unseen because of his perception as an outsider who would "drain the swamp". 

These types of political movements are not new in Europe. Geert Wilders has been in the Dutch House of Representatives since 1998. Likewise, Wilders' French counterpart, Marine Le Pen, joined the National Front in 1986. Wilders and Le Pen are not political outsiders like Trump was, and therefore they may have not be able to play to quite the same sentiments as Trump could. 

And in France? France is going to the polls in April and again in May to elect a new president. The major candidates are Marine Le Pen of the right-wing nationalist National Front, Francois Fillon from Les Republicains, Benoit Hamon of the Socialist Party, Emmanuel Macron of a new center-left party called "En Marche!", and far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is running under the banner of a party called Unsubmissive France. 

There is a real chance that Le Pen will win the first round of the presidential election. Because of France's diverse political theatre, however, there will be a runoff in May between the two top candidates. 

The runoff will likely be between Le Pen, Fillon, or Macron. Polls indicate that both Fillon and Macron would beat Le Pen in a hypothetical matchup, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story. Fillon has been mired in scandal since he won his party's primary and has slumped to third in the polls. Unlike in the Netherlands where the mainstream right-wing VVD is fairly popular, Les Republicains are struggling to address the scandals of their presidential candidate. While Emmanuel Macron is snapping at Le Pen's heels in recent polls, his ability to gain the support of the French left may be up for debate, as he leans farther towards the center than both Hamon and Melenchon. 

If Fillon faces Le Pen in the second round, the polls may end up tight. It's true that in 2002, French left-wing parties rallied behind the center-right Jacques Chirac in order to defeat Jean-Marie Le Pen soundly in the runoff that year, but the FN has managed to appeal to a wider base since 2002. 

Macron does very well in a hypothetical head-to-head against Le Pen, but whether he can inspire the same sort of rally against her is yet to be seen. The National Front may try to paint Macron, a former investment banker, as a corporate fat cat in an attempt to win parts of the French left over, as the nationalist right does tend to lean left on economic issues. 

In the Netherlands, an abundance of political parties has stalled Geert Wilders and his agenda. Can France's safey valve, the presidential runoff do the same against Marine Le Pen? It just might be able to.