Tag Archives: Opposition

Unprecedented elections mark turning point in Kurdish democracy

Regardless of how opposition fares in elections, an important platform has been set for reform, prosperity and evolvement that should not be wasted.

The unprecedented, emotional and colorful election campaigns were concluded, and the time had come to cast votes on 25th July 2009, with millions of eager Kurds turning out on an historic Election Day.

While it may take days for result to be announced as the ballots boxes are counted, Kurds waiting anxiously can be sure of one thing, the election was just the right tonic to kick start sociopolitical development in the region, send a subtle jolt down the established elite in Kurdistan, embolden democracy in the region and crucially afford the Kurds the next platform on which to advance and prosper, in tentative and hostile times.

Regardless of how many seats Nawshirwan Mustafa’s refreshing political opposition, Goran (“change”) List, wins at these elections, they can be given huge credit for making the elections a competitive, energetic and taboo-breaking spectacle that can allow democracy and modernization in the region to assume the next gear.

Arguably, nowhere in the world have election campaigns been as passionate and colorful than in Kurdistan. The choice available at these elections, with 24 lists competing for 111-seats of the Kurdish National Assembly, ensured that political interest was rekindled in the region.

It is now the turn of the new political establishment after these elections to fulfill the promises to the people and ensure that the strong tides that have been created from these latest elections and the historic opportunity that it brings is not wasted.

The political battle scene

Traditional political heavyweights in the region, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) spearheaded by incumbent Kurdistan Region President, Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, may have been the fiercest of rivals in the past, but have united in recent elections under one banner.

This time under the Kurdistani List, they are expected to be confirmed as the victors at the polls once more. However, perhaps the fact that the two historic opponents have needed to battle side-by-side and unite as closely as ever to secure victory says much about the healthy nature of the electoral campaigning at this election.

The newest newcomer to the political fold in the region, the Goran List head by Mustafa, who broke away from the PUK leadership earlier this year, has proved to be greatest challenger to the status quo.

The influence of the new opposition

The support of the Goran List has seemingly gathered pace as the campaign bandwagon headed towards Election Day. The Goran List was as much of a political organization as a sociopolitical revolution in the region.

Their manifesto was simple, it promotes change in the political institutions and hierarchy of the region and is designed to serve as a different flavor and a distinct alternative for the Kurdish masses – arguably, what that they have lacked since the first historic Kurdish elections in 1992.

Goran has based its support on taking advantage of the disgruntled sentiments of large sections of the Kurdish population, who air common frustration at the current government.

A common theme has been Goran Lists determination to combat corruption and elitism in the region. It has accused key parties of been more interested in keeping power than undertaking necessary reform. Its support base has been mainly in the eastern parts of the Kurdistan Region, around the city of Sulaimaniya were it is expected to pose a huge challenge particularly to the traditional stalwarts of the area, the PUK.

It also has strong following amongst an expectant youth, who are frustrated with opportunities. Other frustrated voices have complained about living standards, bureaucracy and lack of employment.

The increasing productive role of the youth at these elections is most welcome, after all they are the very future of the region and as such political advancement, reform and prosperity cannot be achieved without their advent support, active involvement and direct interest.

The other key challengers are the Service and Reform List, an alliance comprising two Islamist parties, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), and the Kurdistan Islamic Group and two leftist parties, the Toilers Party and the Social Democrat Party. They group has 18 seats in the current parliament, and a similar showing at the polls would significantly boost the power of the opposition alongside the Goran List.

The likely winners

Although Goran are expected to do make credible gains at the elections, this shouldn’t sway one away from the reality that both Barzani and Talabani still enjoy momentous support across the country. While the PUK support base may have been rocked around the Sulaimaniya region, it still enjoys popular support and the KDP still has formidable support particularly around Duhok.

The support base of the KDP and PUK is noticeable amongst old generation of Kurds, many of whom are veterans who fought in the tough days of discrimination and oppression, far from the relative prosperity and freedom of today.

The iconic and historic part that the KDP and PUK and their leaders have played in the situation of Kurdistan today is etched in Kurdish memory. However, this fact sits more deeply with the older Kurds, who suffered bitterly in the dark days of Baathist rule and feel a debt of gratitude and loyalty to the ruling parties.

While other supporters of the Kurdistani List point to the economic boom in recent years and Kurdish gains since 2003.

The youth inspired by opportunity, the possibility of migration to abroad and growing expectations are becoming less sympathetic to the nationalist card of these long-established parties.

Although, the added focus on the motion of change is a refreshing addition to the political scene and one which the Kurdistani List must pay heed, powerful and well-known incumbents are also a key prerequisite for Kurds to safeguard their gains in the region and in order to prosper economically and strategically in a hostile region.

Presidential elections

For the first time in Kurdish history, the president is to be chosen directly by the people. Kurdish nationalist icon and incumbent president, Massoud Barzani, is widely-expected to win the race by a landslide.

Much in the same as established parties give the region a stronger hand in difficult times, the appointment of Barzani in a second presidential term would serve as a boost to the region.

Barzani is a well known and respected figure, and one who airs the authority and experience that the fledging region still requires.

Barzani strikes the right balance between dealing strongly with neighboring countries whilst at the same time emphasizing the importance of mutual ties, which the region is greatly dependent upon. In particular, key issues with Baghdad such as article 140 and revenue sharing, requires a strong figure and a determined nationalistic mindset.

Barzani has expressed strong rhetoric in recent years on political reform and paying heed to the wishes of the people, there must now be strong pressure from the top in ensuring parliamentary promises are fulfilled. The example of reform and setting motions to deal with current perceived failings of the government must start from the very top.

The way forward

What is clear is that regardless of the election results, the next Kurdish parliament is under pressure to deliver, to change the system of government and press towards reform.

The Kurdistani List are likely to win the next elections, but they can rest on their laurels at their peril, with people now anticipating that the next 4 years will live up to the election campaign euphoria.

If there was any notion of political comfort from the ruling elite, then these elections should serve to change that. Certainly, if the people continue to be disgruntled with the KDP and PUK at the next elections, then their majority will erode even further.

The next government must ensure more transparency and accountability, with an independent and respected judiciary system underpinning the new order.

It is an ideal scenario for the region to finally have credible opposition in parliament. It not only emboldens democracy, but healthy competition is just the ingredient encourage to boost political progression.

The Kurdistani List will now have to contend with a major opposition in parliament, and the influence of the opposition will be noticeable on key regional policies, especially relations with Baghdad, where a more reconciliatory tone is likely.

These elections will undoubtedly server as a turning point in the Kurdish democratic experience.

Healthy competition from within, unity from the outside

No matter how competitive and heated election and political jockeying becomes, the main thing is to ensure that perception of unity is not distorted to the outside world.

Many elements from within Baghdad and neighboring countries, wish to capitalize on instability and political uncertainty and at the current time when important national fundamentals such resolving disputed territories and oil sharing are contentiously debated, a weakening of the regions hands would be highly counter-productive.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

As unrest simmers further, what now for Iran?

Over 2 weeks since the contentious presidential elections, Iran remains firmly on the news. The national fall out, which came as a result of a wide disagreement over the election results that saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected by a landslide, has intensified with streets protests been met with crackdowns by the government that has seemingly only encouraged and increased the international spotlight.

Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned on Friday 19th June that a continuation of protests would not be tolerated and would be broken-up by security forces. Relative silence from the ruling elite was effectively broken with Khamenei providing public backing to Ahmadinejad and denouncing any notion that the infamous elections were rigged.

Ensuing violence on the streets of Iran, as protestors defied government warnings, increased the stakes and the deepened the national divide that has clouded Iran. Scores have been killed as a result with many more injured.

With the Guardian Council firmly dashing any hopes of a re-run of the elections, but admitting that a number of electoral irregularities did in fact take place, this only begged the question of what would happen next.

Splits within the ruling elite

The mass public demonstrations over past two weeks have been unprecedented as they have occurred in parallel with evident splits within the ruling elite. This has placed leading Iranian figures in a difficult predicament, with parliamentarians and the Assembly of Experts not appearing united in how to move to forward in this stand off.

Reports that some family members of influential former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an ally of Mir Hossein Mousavi, were briefly detained further, underlined tensions even if ruling members have maintained relative silence.

The timeliness of the government in terms of responses and public rhetoric, suggests that leaders have been divided not just on the political row, but also how to combat the protestors. Limited concessions in the face of such mass-scale and well highlighted protests were always likely, but the government is unlikely to cave-in wholesale to public demands. The Iranian leadership will clearly look for ways at calming tensions and appeasing at least a section of the protestors, but at the same time they do not want to appear weak or losing grip of power.

The open admission that voting irregularities did occur is seen as a positive step, but a fundamental admittance that elections were flawed or a rerun of elections that significantly changes results at this stage, and thus proves the general “reformists” protestors right, would be hugely embarrassing.

What is certain is that Ahmadinejad is the new Iranian president and the stance of the revolutionary guard and ruling elite only emboldens this reality.

There have been public demonstrations before since the advent of the Islamist revolution of 1979 that established the Islamic republic, however, fractions within the ruling elite have never been channelled in a public way as this time around. Any quarrels or fractures within the powerful institutes in Iran have always been careful in preserving the very foundations of the republic, thus even reformist campaigns in the past, including that of Mousavi have generally supported this view.

Mousavi, a powerful aide of Ayatollah Khomeini, high-profile public break with the Iranian Supreme Leader has only led to an entrenchment of views in each camp.

So what now?

In the short-term, some violence and protests will continue but the size of any such movements moving forward is unpredictable. What is certain is that continuing defiance of the orders of highest powers in Iran, will fuel a bigger clampdown from the revolutionary guard this time around.

Iranian people, in the face of severe restrictions and clampdowns, may decide to take their protests to another level. Acts of civil disobedience, in terms of strikes and general disruptions that may harm the interests of the government are likely.

Although, protestors have already defied government orders, at the beginning they were clearly mindful to appear as peaceful citizens and held many demonstrations in relative silence. The message of the organisers of the demonstrations was that they only wanted to express their legitimate demands and wanted to be “heard”.

Further demonstrations, fuelling the wrath of the security forces, will take the battle to a new stage if protestors decide to retaliate en-masse or large-scale killings are witnessed. Such circumstances will turn the current events into much the same circumstances under the Shah.

However, it is much more likely that violence will eventually wane and it is unlikely that election results will change a great deal if at all, however, the political consequences of this saga will echo for years longer.

The aftermath of the presidential elections, will serve to symbolize the fracture present in Iranian society that the Iranian government would do well to contain. What is certain is that the Iranian leadership have been undermined in one way or another by the public consequences of this bitter stand off. Iranian leadership have shown that they would rather lose support of the population in the short-term than appear weak to the Iranian people, lest to the outside world, who have had Iran firmly under their radar for many a year.

Such large scale demonstrations and public protests are not simply attributable to western intervention. There has clearly been an ideological battle simmering between the conservatives and reformists within Iran for many years, and the size of the public discontent spells an underlying division that Iranian leaders must resolve.

The recent events will certainly provide a level of encouragement to those in Iran seeking change or indeed to Western powers. If Ahmadinejad second term was going to be difficult, this has made it even more intriguing. Underground reformist movements are likely to see a surge and Ahmadinejad, fulfilling his second term, will have to sufficiently appease reformists and contain their ambitions.

Straining of relationships with the West

The Iranian government has ubiquitously accused western governments of fermenting unrest and meddling in its affairs.

Of all the countries, Britain appears to be taking a brunt of the Iranian backlash, after Khamenei described them as the ‘most treacherous’ of their enemies.

Compounded with expulsion of two UK diplomats from Iran, Britain’s tentative diplomatic channels with Iran have become heavily strained. In a tit-for-tat move, the UK ordered the expulsion of two Iranian diplomats.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown refuted Iranian allegations and stated that “the onus is on Iran to show the Iranian people that recent elections have been credible and that the repression and curtailment of democratic rights that we’ve seen in the last few days will cease.”

The “neutral” stance of the US has been changing steadily and the events of the past week or so that have seen increasing violent crackdowns, has given US President Barack Obama plenty of reason to speak out and condemn “unjust actions” of Iranian leaders, and praise the “courage and dignity of the Iranian people”. Obama denied any meddling in Iranian affairs, but the general US view was best summarised by the White House spokesman who stated, “We’ve seen the beginnings of change in Iran.” It is hardly a great secret that general change in Iran or indeed regime change, would amount to sweet tunes in the ears of the US.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon was no exception to criticism of meddling after the Iranian Foreign Minister stated he had “damaged his credibility”, after Ki-moon had expressed worry and openly urged Iran to respect fundamental civil rights and the “will of its people”.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

Deepening election crisis threatens ideological stand-off in Iran

The worlds gaze was already fixated on the Iranian presidential elections like never before. Iran, as an emerging regional powerhouse with nuclear aspirations, has been a firm item on the international agenda. The global focus on the elections only intensified with the ensuing crisis around the election results, which saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected by a surprising margin with 63% of the vote, well ahead of his nearest rival Mir Hossein Mousavi who managed 33% of the vote.

The election results were almost immediately condemned and opposed by Mousavi and the other two rival presidential candidates, Mohsen Rezaee and Mehdi Karroubi, alleging electoral fraud and corruption.

The opposition refused to acknowledge the election results and demanded a full re-run of the election.

What ensued on the streets of Iran thereafter turned a brewing political crisis into a symbolic clash of society, contested largely between conservatives and reformists that could determine the future orientation of the country.

Pro-Mousavi supporters have orchestrated a number of demonstrations in Tehran, which has fast spread to other cities, with the largest protests staged on Thursday. The rallies so far have been largely peaceful and have mainly seen tens of thousands of people march in silence through the centre of the cities. This “silence” has been carefully organised in order to underline the peaceful message of the protests, that the people are voicing their legitimate demands and that the rallies are not common opposition against the ruling system of Iran.

However, history has shown how quickly such situations can turn into wide-scale anger and hostility. The government forces have been careful not to be perceived to be violently suppressing the rallies. However, common resentment has already been stoked with a number of protestors shot last Monday by members of the pro-government Basij volunteer militia. A number of arrests of politicians, journalists and protestors have also been made.

Members of the Basij militia have also allegedly been involved in retaliatory attacks in a number of Iranian cities through university raids and beatings of students.

However, as much as the ruling elite in Iran have urged calm and tried to maintain control, the current crisis threatens to divide the very foundation of the Islamic Republic.

The most powerful figure in Iran, with control of armed forces, police and intelligence services, is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has fast become engulfed at the centre of a deepening crisis.

Succumbing to broad pressure, Khamenei has agreed to a re-count of the votes in disputed areas, a sharp shift from his initial stance, but falling some way short of opposition demands.

Undoubtedly, it is the nature of the rallies, some of the largest since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 itself that have added to the fierce climate and ensured anxiety amongst figures in the establishment.

Reformists, particularly Mousavi are not an especial threat to the Islamic government. However, with the opposition keen to obtain nothing short of a full re-run of the elections, the current tense environment will not die down too easily.

This places the government into a very difficult corner. If they do nothing, than the perception of their deep grip, especially that of the ruling elite will be challenged. Regaining of control is paramount in these circumstances and the government may offer further concessions under a continuation of a “carrot and stick” approach.  However, any form of a violent crackdown, may well turn an election dispute into a challenge against the very foundations of the Iranian Islamic republic, which may well go beyond the influence of Mousavi. 

After all powerful figures in Iran will be well-aware of the circumstances that led to the historical events under the Shah, which ultimately culminated in the Islamic revolution. A crackdown pits influential Iranian security forces against the people, this itself is a very dangerous ploy since behind the scenes, the forces may well be divided to some extent and many are openly supportive of reformists. How they would react against their fellow sympathisers if any suppression gets out of hand, may open new doors and challenges in the current conflict.

Supporters of Ahmadinejad have also been out in force in a show of support, and if the situation escalates, this may result in direct confrontation between rival supporters.

The ruling clerical elite may try to employ a neutral view, but in reality in these circumstances this is almost impossible. A great example is Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who is chairman of one of the most powerful institutions of the regime, the Assembly of Experts, which ultimately selects the Supreme Leader.

Whilst such figures have tried not to stoke any fires, Rafsanjani was involved in a recent confrontation with Ahmadinejad who accused him of corruption. More importantly, Rafsanjani, who has been a key cog of the Islamist regime from the outset of the revolution, is a supporter of Mousavi. He may have been less vocal but his more activist daughter, Faeza Hashemi, gave a speech in one of the “illegal” demonstrations.

Iranian officials have accused foreign media and governments, particularly, Washington, on an “interventionist approach” on the election issue. Such accusations of meddling have led to a foreign media blackout on coverage of the crisis.

The White House may unsurprisingly deny any charges of meddling, insisting on the surface that their may not be a great difference to them or in terms of Iranian policy who becomes the next Iranian president. Quietly, would it be any secret that they would prefer to see a long-time nemesis in turmoil and to witness events that challenge the very essence of the Islamic Republic?

All this begs the question of just how “illegitimate” the elections were. Although, it is hardly an indication of wide-spread fraud, some of elements of the election were rather unusual. For example, the votes were not announced province-by-province as in past elections but in percentages via blocks of votes, which seemingly changed very little as they were announced.

Such little changes in counting patterns would indicate that Ahmadinejad would have done well in rural and urban areas and even in home regions of the positioning candidates.

Ahmadinejad has support across Iran, but mainly in more rural and less off areas.  But the middle-classes of the major cities, acknowledged to be main supporters of Mousavi, are probably more integral components in deciding any election outcome.

All eyes are now on the conservative body, the Council of Guardians that has to sign-off on the election results within 10 days and is currently tasked to look into the electoral complaints.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Online Opinion, Peyamner, Various Misc.