Tag Archives: presidential elections

Iran’s Decision: Why Celebrate Hassan Rouhani?

BARIN KAYAOĞLU

16 June 2013

To the casual observer, pictures of ordinary Iranians celebrating the election of Hassan Rouhani as president must have been a strange one. After all, only four years ago, the allegations of fraud in the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had caused massive protests in Iran.

Of course, prior to the election, many in the West had portrayed the Iranians elections as a rerun of the 2009 charade. Some still do.

Yet Iran’s impressive voter turnout (estimated at 75 percent, which is fifteen points higher than the turnout in the U.S. presidential election last year), gave the lie to much of the criticism. The celebrations further refuted the critics.

But why are Iranians so excited about Hassan Rouhani?

The answer partly lies in Rouhani’s background. The jurist-turned-foreign policy expert has the right credentials to serve Iran as president for the next four years. Before his election, Rouhani was Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei’s representative in the Supreme National Security Council, Iran’s most important policy-making body on matters of national defense and foreign affairs. Rouhani also led the team that negotiated Iran’s nuclear program with Britain, France, and Germany in 2003-5. He completed a doctorate in law at Glasgow Caledonian University and speaks several foreign languages. In short, Rouhani has the experience and skills to improve Iran’s international standing.

This background probably helped him with his election. As other experts have pointed out, Rouhani’s victory is a signal that the people of Iran want the standoff with the outside world over their country’s nuclear program to be resolved peacefully. Even though the supreme leader has ultimate say in Iran’s national security affairs, it is the president who serves as the country’s main broker with the outside world. Among all candidates on the ballot, Rouhani was the best man to improve his nation’s international standing.

Also important was how Rouhani addressed issues most crucial for ordinary Iranians: the economy and social rights. As Hooman Majd, one of the most original and fun-to-read observers of the Iranian scene, points out, “it’s the economy, stupid” also resonates in the Iranian context. Rouhani demonstrates that he understands Iran’s economic problems and knows how to fix them. (Of course, much of the fixing will hinge on whether or not he gets some of the U.S. and EU-backed sanctions lifted.) Add to that Rouhani’s promises for a free press and nod to civil rights during his campaign, it’s easy to see why he inspires hope among his fellow Iranians.

Rouhani Victorious
Rouhani Victorious

These are some of the obvious reasons why Hassan Rouhani’s victory is good news. But there are also intangible (yet critically important) factors that make this election bode well for Iran and the world. Rouhani is not a radical reformer but he is not a hardliner or a puppet of Khamanei either. Despite his status as an “inside man” within the Islamic Republic, the new president received substantial support from moderates and reformists during his campaign. For the next four years, Rouhani will be able to talk to both the establishment and the reformists with ease.

On a similar note, the new president’s frankness is also what Iran needs, especially in a culture that values indirect politeness over straight-talk. Last month on state television, Rouhani had no problem tearing apart the talk show host who tried to question his success as nuclear negotiator in 2003-5. Of course, as it’s wont of Iranians, Rouhani did so very politely and with a smile on his face.

That frankness will come in very handy. Iran may not be a Western-style democracy but it is no North Korea either. The Iranian media frequently complains about the country’s problems and expresses popular frustrations. But many of those grievances probably don’t reach the supreme leader (a frequent problem in authoritarian systems). At the moment, Iran actually needs a president who could level with the supreme leader as well as ordinary Iranians. Rouhani strikes me as somebody who could fulfill that role.

Iran faces some very tough choices in the days ahead. When Hassan Rouhani takes charge in August, he will have some hard decisions to make. The good news is that he seems capable of making them. Right now, Iranians have reason to celebrate.

Barın Kayaoğlu is finishing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia and is a Smith Richardson Foundation fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu), and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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The Turkish Protests and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Plan

BARIN KAYAOĞLU

13 June 2013

[Yazının Türkçesi için buraya tıklayın]

Intentionally Pouring Fuel Over Fire

Since a small sit-in in Istanbul turned into mass protests throughout Turkey two weeks ago, many commentators have criticized Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inflammatory rhetoric against the demonstrators. But unlike what observers think, the Turkish prime minister is not increasing tensions – calling the protestors “looters” and organizing flash rallies where he threatens to unleash his supporters because he is desperate or because he is blinded by rage or because he has lost touch with reality. Although Mr. Erdoğan seems like he’s unwittingly pouring fuel over fire, everything he does is meant to serve a political objective.

That objective is Çankaya, the district in the capital Ankara where Turkish presidents reside. The term of the current president, Abdullah Gül, ends next year. It is no secret that Mr. Erdoğan wants to expand the powers of the presidency and succeed Mr. Gül as president.

But how does Mr. Erdoğan’s inflammatory rhetoric serve his aspirations? Although the prime minister has been saying offensive things for a long time, it was around 2007-2008 that he began to use a more divisive discourse. In April 2007, the Turkish military, unwilling to see Mr. Gül become president because his wife wears the Islamic headscarf, issued a memorandum on its website threatening to overthrow the Erdoğan government (Mr. Gül was foreign minister at the time). Had the military succeeded, it would have been the fifth coup in republican Turkey. The episode coincided with the “republican rallies” (Cumhuriyet mitingleri) against Mr. Gül’s candidacy. Then, the country’s secular establishment fought another battle against Mr. Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) by threatening to close down the party at the Constitutional Court.

In this context, Prime Minister Erdoğan learned a simple lesson: he would not be able to appeal to diverse segments of Turkish society anymore. As a result, he came to rely on more conservative social groups who shared his worldview. In other words, Mr. Erdoğan began to pursue his agenda not through pluralism but through establishing majorities with those conservatives who would not otherwise vote for an AKP with a diverse social base. That’s precisely why the prime minister is still making assertions about the protestors that are proven to be false: that they “attacked the police” and “drank beer inside a mosque.” These allegations are sure to galvanize not only AKP supporters but also the country’s religious and nationalist majority. The prime minister is aware that popular anger against the protestors would turn into votes for him in next year’s presidential election.

Burning Turkey for Çankaya

Mr. Erdoğan, however, faces a dilemma: his tactic in escalating tensions, which served him quite well until now, could backfire. If the protests, which have remained generally non-violent so far (except for instances of police brutality), get out of control, the prime minister’s chances in the presidential election could be jeopardized. After all, Mr. Erdoğan would not be able to capitalize on his image of “man of order and economic growth” if Turkey experiences large-scale violence.

Here’s why: because the presidential election will be contested in a popular vote for the first time in Turkish history, Mr. Erdoğan’s electoral strategy would be to take more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round. A second round, which would pit Mr. Erdoğan against another popular candidate, would be too risky. If the opposition parties CHP and MHP do not nominate an ideological, combative, and divisive candidate but someone who could appeal to broad segments of society (a popular bureaucrat, artist, or even a retired general who does not have the “coup-maker” stain), it is possible that voters could choose such a candidate over Mr. Erdoğan. In that respect, it is also sensible for CHP and MHP to nominate President Gül, who is eligible for reelection and is more widely respected than the prime minister.

The Turkish PM needs to stop and think.
The Turkish PM needs to stop and think.

At this point, Prime Minister Erdoğan has to ask himself these two questions: is Turkey worth burning for the sake of Çankaya? More important, would a burnt Turkey award him with Çankaya?

Barın Kayaoğlu is finishing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia and is a Smith Richardson Foundation fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu), and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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