Three Votes to Watch This Spring:

Three Votes to Watch This Spring:

Parliamentary Election in Armenia, Constitutional Referendum in Turkey, Presidential Election in Iran

In spring 2017 voters in Armenia, Iran and Turkey will enter the voting booths. Armenians will be voting in a parliamentary election, Iranians will be choosing a president and voters in Turkey will have to make up their mind on a constitutional reform. Why are these votes important? And what results should we expect?

Text : Mikayel Zolyan / Photos: Armenpress, Pan Photo, 

Elections of the National Assembly, April 2017

The upcoming parliamentary election in Armenia, in early April, is not a regular one. It will be the first parliamentary election after the constitution of the country has been changed, replacing a presidential system of government with a parliamentary one. Therefore, not only will the outcome of this election decide who comes to power in Armenia, but it would also set the trends of Armenia’s development for years ahead.
When the new constitution was adopted in a referendum in December 2015 its proponents in the Armenian government argued that by eliminating the strong executive presidency, the reform would make Armenia more democratic. The reform’s critics from the opposition argued that the rationale behind the constitutional reform was to preserve the current political elite’s grip on power. In particular, the opposition pointed to the fact that the second presidential term of Armenia’s president Serzh Sargsyan is coming to an end in April 2018, while the constitutional reform could allow him to take on a new role in the government after that. Sargsyan and his allies have so far sent mixed messages regarding Sargsyan’s possible political role after the end of his presidential mandate: in some cases they denied such intentions, but in other cases did not exclude anything. Another focal point of the criticism was the rule, which provided for a run-off vote, in case none of the parties were able to secure a majority in the elections. This provision has no precedents in other countries’ constitutions (such a rule was introduced in Italy in 2015, but as a law, not as a constitutional provision, and still has to be tested in action). Opposition argued that this rule would favor the ruling party, while the defenders of the constitutional reform countered that it would prevent the emergence of weak coalition governments, a common drawback of parliamentary systems around the world.
Naturally, neither the government, nor the opposition can claim to know how the reform will play out in reality. One thing is obvious: the change in the system of the government is quite significant. In the past, strong executive presidency dominated Armenian politics, so the presidential elections were a winner-takes-all affair, often leading to protests and violence. As a result, there was little room for negotiation and deals, a vital part of the democratic political process. Besides, the opposition parties failed to convert their votes into a comparable share of influence on the affairs of the state. The new parliamentary system can give the opposition parties more say in deciding how the country is run, and can serve as an incentive for more deal-making that can advance democratic political culture in Armenia. Of course, things could also go wrong: in the absence of a strong presidential mandate based on direct popular vote, Armenian politics may become dominated by a few influential oligarchic groups, who could gain the control over parliament and monopolize political decision-making.

Ultimately, it depends on the voters, whether the new system brings more or less democracy to Armenia. At the moment, there are some worrying signs of apathy and disillusion among many voters: many Armenians, who have come to distrust both the government and the opposition, do not expect that meaningful change can take place through elections. However, there are also positive signs: months before the elections a wide movement of election observers has started, involving mostly politically and socially active young people. This movement is not confined to Armenia proper: many Diaspora Armenians have announced their readiness to be part of this movement. Among those planning to take part in the elections as observers are figures who enjoy a cult status among young Armenians, such as Serj Tankian and Canadian actress Arsinee Khanjian.
Of course, observation is an important element of elections, but, ultimately, an election is about the political parties. At this stage it is hard to make predictions. However, it is obvious that the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), which has won all parliamentary elections in Armenia held in this century, has the highest chances of winning this time as well. Recently, the RPA has been strengthened by the accession of a new prime-minister, Karen Karapetyan, who is perceived by many in Armenia as someone capable of bringing change to stagnant Armenian economy. However, there are also signs of internal splits within the RPA, which could influence its electoral results. Thus, former prime-minister Hovik Abrahamyan has left the party, along with some of his allies. As Abrahamyan had often been accused of corruption and shady connections in the past, his departure may help RPA to present a new face to the voters. On the other hand, Abrahamyan’s ability to mobilize the party’s resources in various regions has been a key element of the RPA’s successes in the past, so his departure may create a headache for RPA.
The RPA faces a challenge by several parties and coalitions, which represent groups that until recently have been a part of the ruling elite. These parties can hardly be described as opposition in the conventional sense, however, it is common for post-Soviet countries that groups, splitting from the ruling elite can challenge their former allies, and in some cases quite successfully. One coalition is formed around wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukyan and his party “Prosperous Armenia”, and another one has brought together former minister of defense Seyran Ohanyan and former minister of foreign affairs Vartan Oskanian. Will these forces be able to present a serious challenge to RPA, or are they going to become what in the post-Soviet space is called “systemic” opposition, remains to be seen.
Finally, there is the “non-systemic” opposition, which competes for the votes of those want to see radical change in the country. Here there are two main players at the moment: the Armenian National Congress, led by former president Ter-Petrosyan and “the Way Out” coalition led by three young politicians, Nikol Pashinyan, Edmon Marukyan and Aram Sargsyan. At the moment these forces can hardly be considered the frontrunners of the election: the local self-government elections in fall 2016 showed a low level of support for them. While there are many Armenians, who are highly critical of the government, many of them do not trust the opposition either, or consider it too weak to be able to change anything. However, in the past, Armenian opposition has often seen the numbers of its supporters surge in the run-up to elections. Besides, usually the opposition parties show good results in the capital Yerevan, which did not take part in the 2016 local government election. So, it would be wrong to write these forces off.
The election in April may become the most important parliamentary election in the history of Armenia since independence. Not only this election will determine which political forces will dominate the political life of Armenia in the coming five years, but it will also determine how smooth the transition from a presidential to a parliamentary republic will be. In other words, the coming election will be the first test for the new constitution, and it will show whether Armenia has gained or lost as a result of the constitutional transition.



Referendum on a New Constitution, April 2017

On April 16 voters in Turkey will be asked to express their opinion about the proposal for anew constitution. The project of constitutional reform which will be on the ballot, will turn Turkey into a presidential republic. This vote can potentially have immense consequences for Turkey, and, given Turkey’s role in regional and global affairs can resonate far beyond Turkish borders.
The fact that the referendum will be held is already a significant victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and more specifically for its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For years Erdogan and his allies have been pushing for a constitutional reform that would enhance the powers of the president. The plan of constitutional reform faced resistance from all sides of the political spectrum: the opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), pro-Kurdish “People’s Democratic Party” (HDP), the ultra-nationalists, the military, the moderate Islamist movement of Fethullah Gulen, the liberal intellectuals, and even from some groups within Erdogan’s own party. However, in some cases this resistance was broken, and in others Erdogan managed to carve deals that won support of those who had previously opposed him.
It was one of such deals, between Erdogan and the ultra-nationalist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) that allowed the referendum to take place. On January 21 parliament deputies from MHP provided the votes necessary to secure the backing of the National Assembly, without which the referendum would not be possible. The bill was opposed by MPs from CHP, as well as those deputies from pro-Kurdish HDP, who had not been arrested. Neither these votes, nor the brawl between the pro-government and opposition MPs during the parliament session, stopped the bill from passing: it gained 339 votes, surpassing the 60% threshold (330 votes) required to submit the draft to a referendum.
If passed, the constitutional reform will turn Turkey into a presidential republic, with wide executive powers for president. The new system might be called “super-presidential”. The reform will abolish the office of prime-minister (though it will establish an office of vice-president), and the ministers will be appointed by the president directly. Critics of the new project have argued that this will take Turkey down the road to authoritarianism by weakening the system of checks and balances. The defenders of the project, however, argue, that the new constitution will actually enhance the system of checks and balances by providing a clear division between the executive and legislative power. They defend the constitution as a solution to the problem of weak coalition governments, which had plagued Turkish politics in the past, before AKP’s rise. The critics, however, point to provisions that reduce the power of the parliament and give the president control over the judicial system. Thus, the parliament is deprived of the right to submit questions to the cabinet, asking to clarify various policies, a tool that allows the parliament to exercise control over the cabinet today. The new constitution also complicates significantly the procedure of impeachment and gives the president an opportunity to influence “the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors”, a body that oversees the judiciary.

Any discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the constitution ultimately comes down to Erdogan’s role. In one capacity or another, Erdogan has been Turkey’s leader since 2002, when his moderate Islamist party AKP won the elections for the first time. Erdogan’s critics have pointed out that the constitutional reform will allow Erdogan to run for president for two more consecutive terms, five years each, thus making him Turkey’s leader until 2029. Even though Turkey is still in theory a parliamentary republic, and the executive branch of the government is headed by the prime-minister, Erdogan already has effective control over the country. Many observers believe that the departure of the former prime-minister Ahmet Davutoglu, once a leading AKP ideologue, has been a result of his relatively independent stance vi-s-a-vis Erdogan, particularly his objections to the direction of the constitutional reform. Binali Yildirim, who has replaced Davutoglu, it seems, wholeheartedly supports Erdogan and has no reservations about the new constitution project.
In the past years, Erdogan has won virtually every major vote, in which he has participated. He also emerged victorious after an attempted military coup d’état this summer. Will the spring referendum be another victory for Erdogan? So far, what has helped Erdogan to defeat his numerous opponents, was their inability to form a coalition and to agree on a unified agenda. In fact, many of Erdogan’s opponents are more hostile to each other than to Erdogan. It would have been extremely difficult to imagine the military, the Gulenists, the Kurds and the ultra-nationalists coming together. Even the tension and instability, which have rocked Turkey in the recent years, have so far not harmed Erdogan’s electoral prospects. In fact, when AKP failed to secure a solid majority in June 2015, gaining 40.87 % of the votes, Erdogan called for a snap election in November 2015, and though major terrorist attacks took place during the campaign, AKP significantly improved its result, gaining 49.5% of the votes, which allowed it to form a majority in the new parliament.
But will things continue to work this way? After all, now the voters are asked to say “yes” or “no” to a proposal, which even many AKP supporters have reservations about. So far Erdogan has been successful in eliminating dissent in AKP and getting rid of potential rivals within his party (such as former president Abdullah Gul or former prime-minister Ahmet Davutoglu). But will he be able to mobilize enough AKP supporters in support of the constitutional reform. Opinion polls show that Turkish voters are now almost evenly divided between supporters and opponents of the reform. Even a small defection from the ranks of AKP supporters could lead to a defeat of the constitutional reform.
Since the latest election Turkey has gone through various shocks. Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war and the influx of refugees from that country, turbulent relations with Russia, the escalating conflict in Kurdish regions, and finally, the failed coup d’état and the subsequent political repressions against Erdogan’s opponents, have shook the country. All these troubles left their mark on Turkish economy. Various crises, and, most of all, the rising terrorist threat have hit tourism, one of Turkey’s major sources of income. Instability has hindered investments, and international rating agencies have lowered the country’s credit ratings. Turkish currency, Lira, became the second-worst performing emerging market currency in 2016 (after the Argentine peso), losing about 17 % of its value.
In the past, Erdogan’s and AKP’s appeal had to a high extent been based on the success of their economic policies, which opened up Turkish economy and lifted millions of its inhabitants out of poverty. With the economy in trouble, Erdogan is doing what many leaders before him have done in such situations: he calls on the people to rally around his leadership, against internal and external enemies, of which there is no shortage: from Kurds to ISIL, from Assad to Gulen. But will the voters heed to AKP’s argument that, in order to counter numerous threats, Turkey needs a super-presidential system under a strong leader like Erdogan? Or will the referendum bring victory to those who consider Erdogan himself the source of many of Turkey’s problems? We shall know the answer to this question in April.



May 2017

On May 19 2017 Iranians will be voting in a presidential election. Though in Iranian political system the president is only the second most important official, as he is subordinate to the Supreme Leader, presidential elections are still an important event, which can determine the path that the country takes. While the Supreme Leader Khamenei has retained the highest post in Iranian hierarchy since 1989, throughout that period Iran has changed four presidents, and the arrival of each new president has brought significant changes to the politics of the country. So, to a large extent it depends on the result of this election whether the gradual normalization between Iran and the West, undertaken by its incumbent president Hassan Rouhani will continue, or whether the country will be stirred in a different direction by the religious conservatives.
The upcoming election will most probably turn into a referendum on Rouhani’s policies. In the complicated political landscape of the Islamic Republic, which is sometimes divided into “reformists”, “moderates”, “conservatives” and “ultra-conservatives”, Rouhani can be described as moderate, supported by the reformist camp. Elected four years ago, Rouhani represented a break with the policies of his predecessor, radical conservative Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad’s combination of conservatism and populism today seems to be one of the predecessors of the rising wave of populism in the West. While Ahmadinejad, just like the right-wing populists in the West, was quite popular with some groups of population, he was detested by many middle class urban voters. These contradictions led to massive protests in 2009, when Ahmadinejad’s election victory was disputed by his reformist rivals. The protests, known as “the Green movement” were put down, but the ruling elite of the Islamic Republic took an important lesson. In 2013 election the Khamenei, himself a staunch conservative, made it clear that he would not object if a moderate like Rouhani won.
The reformers and moderates, however, had also learned lessons from their previous failures. Rather than challenging the conservative establishment directly, Rouhani made his priority the advancement of the negotiations with the West over a nuclear deal. By the time Rouhani became president, the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program had led to massive sanctions against the country, which had taken a toll on Iran’s economy. While Iran claimed that its nuclear program had purely peaceful aims, US, EU countries, and even Russia, a much more friendly power for Tehran, suspected that Iran was on the way to get nuclear weapons and insisted that Iran halted its nuclear program. Economic sanctions imposed on Iran in connection to its nuclear program, took a heavy toll on Iranian economy, which, by the time Rouhani came to power, was close to collapse. Moreover, some countries, particularly US and Israel, threatened to do everything in their power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons: even military operation was not considered off the table. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, which included calls for annihilation of Israel, could have provided a pretext for such actions.

Rouhani and his cabinet, particularly his minister of foreign affairs, skilled negotiator Javad Zarif, succeeded in working out an agreement with the so called “Five plus One” (UN Security Council members and Germany) and the EU. The nuclear deal, concluded in 2015, ended Iran’s international isolation and paved the way for economic recovery. So, Rouhani and his supporters have a strong argument to present to the voters in May election. However, Rouhani could still face serious problems, which could cost him an election.
First of all, there is Donald Trump. Trump’s election has the potential of becoming a genuine disaster for Iranian moderates. Both during the campaign and after election, Trump and his allies criticized Obama for being too soft on Iran, promising to get tough. Iran was included into Trump’s travel ban on several Middle Eastern countries, signed on January 30, 2017. After it tested a ballistic missile in early February 2016, Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn said that Iran “was put on notice”, though it is still unclear what exactly this means. It is still quite unlikely that Trump’s administration would simply pull out of the nuclear deal. However, given Trump’s tendency to take unpredictable policy decisions, such a development cannot be ruled out. The continuing civil war in Syria, where Iran actively supports Bashar Assad’s government, has also contributed to the tensions. Besides, Trump’s administration’s tough talk on Iran has already encouraged the “hawks” in Iran, who blame Rouhani for alleged weakness in dealing with “the Great Satan”. Even if Trump’s “toughness” on Iran does not go beyond rhetoric, it could still hurt Rouhani’s fortunes in the elections.
Trump is not the only possible obstacle for the reformers’ camp in the upcoming election. While the lifting of sanctions has certainly helped the Iranian economy, it has not yet produced a major economic boom, as some have hoped. First, not all sanctions have been lifted, some still remain in force. The hopes of a major international investment boom still have to materialize, as Iran still remains a risky place for investment for many international investors. While the lifting of sanctions allowed Iran to increase export of oil, the falling oil prices have reduced the potential benefits. Besides, Iran needs time and new technologies to increase the output of oil. So, while the nuclear deal is certainly a major foreign policy success for Rouhani’s government, it cannot point to a similar success when it comes to the economy.

Another problem for Rouhani is that many in the reformist camp are disappointed with his policies, complaining that Rouhani has failed to bring serious change into Iran’s internal life. Thus, censorship, though it is less pronounced than under Ahmadinejad, still exists and cultural policies of the state still reflect a high degree of influence of the conservatives. Besides, as a result of conservative resistance, Rouhani has so far failed to secure one of his campaign promises, the release of the leaders of the 2009 Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest since 2011. However, in any case, faced with a conservative or ultra-conservative alternative, the voters, who normally support reformist and moderate candidates, will most likely mobilize to give Rouhani their vote.
A lot depends on the position of the religious establishment and the Supreme Leader. In 2013 Khamenei chose not to oppose Rouhani, which, in the context of Iranian politics, amounts to tacit support. But what would be Khamanei’s position this time? It may be still too early to tell. It was a serious blow for Rouhani that his powerful ally, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran’s most influential politicians, passed away in early January. Rafsanjani, a former president, headed the Expediency Council, one of the top non-elected bodies of the Islamic Republic. His pragmatic approach helped to advance the reformist cause. Rafsanjani used to be a hardline revolutionary in the early years of the Islamic Republic, but later drifted toward the moderate camp, and often helped to settle contradictions between reformists and conservatives, thus helping to achieve incremental change in Iran. His absence may embolden ultra-conservatives and make it harder for the reformists to find common ground with the clerical establishment, including the Supreme Leader.
The official registration of the candidates will take place only in mid-April, and the whole campaign will take less than a month. So, last-minute surprises are highly probable. However, at this point the conservatives and ultra-conservatives have yet to come up with a candidate who could effectively challenge Rouhani. In the previous election, one of the factors that helped Rouhani win, was the failure of various conservative factions to unite around a strong candidate. Charismatic Ahmadinejad still has many supporters, especially among the pious lower class voters, but he is a figure that is too divisive for the Iranian society, so his return to power is unlikely any time soon.
In any case, a Rouhani’s defeat would seriously endanger the breakthrough in relations with the West. Even if the hardliners decide to stick to the deal, their victory would most probably become an additional argument for the “hawks” in Trump’s administration and their allies in the Middle East. All this could lead to unravelling of the nuclear deal, and, in a nightmare scenario, even military conflict between Iran and the West. Of course, even a Rouhani win is no guarantee that the conflict between Iran and the West would not escalate. However, a second term for Rouhani would not only empower Iranian reformers, but would probably be met with a sigh of relief in many capitals in the region and around the world.