In Iran, a boycott of the regime’s sham election was part of a more significant protest against the policies of its leadership. However, for those who showed up to vote, the unprecedented large number of blank ballots signal the people’s dismay with the regime and its Supreme Leader.
This dissatisfaction and absence of trust created a negative dichotomy between the people and the government, which reached its highest today. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called the (unprecedented) unwillingness of more than 50% of the people to vote and the presence of the highest percentage of blank ballots as an important event and said: “If this is not a sign of dismay, disappointment, and dissatisfaction of the people towards the government, then what could it be called? What is it indicative of?”
According to statistics provided by the Iranian regime, 62% of the eligible voters did not participate in the recent presidential election. This turnout echoes the voting in the parliamentary elections in March 2009 in which 62% or 33 million eligible people did not participate. Most people in Iran’s living conditions are worsening as days and weeks pass by. The prediction was that the presidential election would face the same low turnout destiny as the March 2009 parliamentary election turned out to be true.
While the Islamic Republic has a dark history of providing accurate statistics, transparency on all levels is one of its worst traits. Iran’s chains of lies regarding the Ukrainian plane crash, the actual death toll in the widespread mid-November 2019 uprising, and the falsified number of coronavirus victims are just a few examples of the lack of transparency. The Iranian opposition, citing 1,200 reports from 400 Iranian cities and thousands of videos and photos from different voting constituencies, declared that the Iranian regime’s number of those who voted in the presidential election is five times higher than the real number. The actual number of participants in this year’s vote was less than ten percent.
According to statistics provided by the regime, more than 4 million of those who voted cast blank ballots because of fear of intimidation, including prison, interrogation, and other abuses. These people went to the polling stations and had their identification paper stamped to avoid further punitive measures. However, they did not vote for anyone. It has been noted that many of these blank ballots were from members of the revolutionary guards, paramilitary Bassij forces, and servicemen who see the Supreme Leader’s weakness and desperation. As a result, they are losing confidence in him.
This unprecedented purposeful gesture by a portion of the population considered the main body that the regime depends on and supporting them for many years is the first of its nature in the 40-year reign of the mullah’s regime in Iran.
Call for a Boycott
It worth noting that before the election, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei had issued a fatwa, saying that voting is a religious obligation and opting not to vote is considered a great sin. Despite all regime’s propaganda, intimidations, hollow promises, bribes, and more, the people’s call for the election boycott was welcomed by the people. It showed itself in the final tally.
In any situation that the Supreme Leader’s fatwa is ignored by the people and loses its pull and effectiveness, the presence and influence of Iran’s opposition become very evident, and this is an alarm for the Supreme Leader and the entire regime.
The Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, claims that its resistance units have rapidly expanded throughout Iran since the mid-November 2019 uprising and have spread the message of election boycott among people successfully.
Three-quarters of the people in the greater City of Tehran and two-thirds of the people of Tehran province did not participate in the presidential election. These numbers suggest that the non-participation in Tehran province was 70% and about 80% in the City of Tehran.
According to ISNA (Iran’s official news), the total number of invalid and blank ballots in Tehran province was 70%! However, Iran’s official news outlets announced the presidential election as a victory for the Islamic Republic. One cannot deny that the level of people’s dissatisfaction and distrust of the government is high. A media outlet close to the regime says that the concentration of power in the hands of a few government institutions should not lead to the elimination of the vulnerable. The vulnerable of the society is once again showing off their power, and this time they may do so more tremendously than in the mid-November 2019 uprising.
An Unprecedented Number of Blank Votes in the City Council Elections
This year, city and village council elections were held at the same time as the presidential election. As a result, the number of those who voted this year was less than 75% compared to the last term. One of the rare events in the recent city and village council elections was more blank votes than those cast for candidates. In Karaj City Council, blank ballots ranked first. The number of blank ballots in the Karaj City Council elections was announced to be 38,888 votes, which is about 16,000 more than the first candidate elected.
It is unprecedented in the history of the elections of the Islamic Republic that in some metropolises such as Karaj, Arak, and Hamedan, the blank votes ranked first. In Tehran, the blank votes ranked second.
Suppose one opts to close eyes on the decline in popular participation in the regime’s elections. In that case, one should pay attention to the citizens’ participation rate, Tehran, which according to the regime’s statistics, has dropped to 26%. This situation is no longer a warning but an actual fire. The number of people voting in the farthest parts of the country will be similar to that of the people of Tehran because the other cities often follow the trends in the country’s capital.
Alternative Force, A Reality?
Azad Armaki, a sociologist and professor at the University of Tehran, says: “I have been talking about a third force for one or two years, whose candidates are neither reformist nor fundamentalist factions of the regime; it is another candidate. Those who cast blank votes have practically crossed the reformist-fundamentalist dichotomy. This phenomenon shows that a large part of society no longer acts in the previous framework and is choosing to travel in other directions.”
From the perspective of jurisprudence, we analyze participation in elections as a vote for the system. According to the regime itself, the non-participation of 62% of the people in the elections requires fundamental reforms in the country’s elections’ legal structure. The existing structure of the regime is the only cause of what is happening in Iran’s society. A genuine and fundamental change can only occur if the jurisprudent’s absolute authority or the absolute monarchy is demolished and removed. That means the end of the mullahs’ regime.
For years, the government has had two strategies. The first is to ignore the people’s voices and continue this course of oppression, awaiting the consequences of the people’s dissatisfaction, including turning their backs on the ballot box. The second is to change its behavior, take into account the people’s vote, and embrace democracy in the true sense of the word. Unfortunately, choosing the second strategy can be costly for the Islamic Republic.
Looking at this regime and its crackdown on people’s gatherings, demonstrations, strikes, and especially the brutal crackdown on the innocent protestors of the 2017 and 2019 uprisings, it is clear they are choosing the first strategy. But, more importantly, the appointment of a president who was involved in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners indicates the regime has decided to implement its suppressive apparatus on the people of Iran. Looking at history teaches us that no dictatorship has survived democracy.
Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power
The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.
The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.
The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.
Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.
Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.
That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.
In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.
Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.
More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.
A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.
Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.
Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr. Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.
FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets, and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.
Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.
A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.
In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.
In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.
A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”
Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.
In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.
Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.
Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.
The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.
“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.
It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.
Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.
One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.
Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.
Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.
With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”
He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.
Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week
The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.
Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.
The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday.
Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.
“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.
“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”
The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.
An important contribution
The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.
This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.
For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning.
He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”
Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”
North Africa: Is Algeria Weaponizing Airspace and Natural Gas?
In a series of shocking and unintelligible decisions, the Algerian Government closed its airspace to Moroccan military and civilian aircraft on September 22, 2021, banned French military planes from using its airspace on October 3rd, and decided not to renew the contract relative to the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which goes through Morocco and has been up and running since 1996–a contract that comes to end on October 31.
In the case of Morocco, Algeria advanced ‘provocations and hostile’ actions as a reason to shut airspace and end the pipeline contract, a claim that has yet to be substantiated with evidence. Whereas in the case of France, Algeria got angry regarding visa restrictions and comments by French President Emmanuel Macron on the Algerian military grip on power and whether the North African country was a nation prior to French colonization in 1830.
Algeria has had continued tensions with Morocco for decades, over border issues and over the Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco as part of its historical territorial unity, but contested by Algeria which supports an alleged liberation movement that desperately fights for independence since the 1970s.
With France, the relation is even more complex and plagued with memories of colonial exactions and liberation and post-colonial traumas, passions and injuries. France and Algeria have therefore developed, over the post-independence decades, a love-hate attitude that quite often mars otherwise strong economic and social relations.
Algeria has often reacted to the two countries’ alleged ‘misbehavior’ by closing borders –as is the case with Morocco since 1994—or calling its ambassadors for consultations, or even cutting diplomatic relations, as just happened in August when it cut ties with its western neighbor.
But it is the first-time Algeria resorts to the weaponization of energy and airspace. “Weaponization” is a term used in geostrategy to mean the use of goods and commodities, that are mainly destined for civilian use and are beneficial for international trade and the welfare of nations, for geostrategic, political and even military gains. As such “weaponization” is contrary to the spirit of free trade, open borders, and solidarity among nations, values that are at the core of common international action and positive globalization.
Some observers advance continued domestic political and social unrest in Algeria, whereby thousands of Algerians have been taking to the streets for years to demand regime-change and profound political and economic reforms. Instead of positively responding to the demands of Algerians, the government is probably looking for desperate ways to divert attention and cerate foreign enemies as sources of domestic woes. Morocco and France qualify perfectly for the role of national scapegoats.
It may be true also that in the case of Morocco, Algeria is getting nervous at its seeing its Western neighbor become a main trade and investment partner in Africa, a role it can levy to develop diplomatic clout regarding the Western Sahara issue. Algeria has been looking for ways to curb Morocco’s growing influence in Africa for years. A pro-Algerian German expert, by the name of Isabelle Werenfels, a senior fellow in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, even recommended to the EU to put a halt to Morocco’s pace and economic clout so that Algeria could catch up. Weaponization may be a desperate attempt to hurt the Moroccan economy and curb its dynamism, especially in Africa.
The impact of Algeria’s weaponization of energy and airspace on the Moroccan economy is minimal and on French military presence in Mali is close to insignificant; however, it shows how far a country that has failed to administer the right reforms and to transfer power to democratically elected civilians can go.
In a region, that is beleaguered by threats and challenges of terrorism, organized crime, youth bulge, illegal migration and climate change, you would expect countries like Algeria, with its geographic extension and oil wealth, to be a beacon of peace and cooperation. Weaponization in international relations is inacceptable as it reminds us of an age when bullying and blackmail between nations, was the norm. The people of the two countries, which share the same history, language and ethnic fabric, will need natural gas and unrestricted travel to prosper and grow and overcome adversity; using energy and airspace as weapons is at odds with the dreams of millions of young people in Algeria and Morocco that aspire for a brighter future in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. Please don’t shatter those dreams!
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