What has brought Iranian protesters onto the streets?

In this file photo, university students attend an anti-government protest inside Tehran University, in Tehran, Iran on Dec. 30, 2017. (AP)
Updated 02 January 2018

What has brought Iranian protesters onto the streets?

LONDON: Iran is stepping up a crackdown against anti-government protests that pose the most audacious challenge to its clerical leadership since 2009. Following are the factors that have brought Iranians to the streets and the challenges the authorities face.
How serious are the protests?
The demonstrations, which began last week, are the most serious since the unrest in 2009 that followed the disputed re-election of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Political protests are rare in Iran, where security services are pervasive. And yet tens of thousands of people have protested across the country since Thursday.
Unlike the pro-reform demonstrations of 2009, the latest protests appear more spontaneous and do not seem to be orchestrated by leaders who can be identified and rounded up by the authorities.
Calls made across the country for an end to economic hardship and alleged corruption are especially sensitive because Iranian leaders often portray the 1979 revolution which overthrew the US-backed Shah as a revolt by the poor against exploitation and oppression.
Although there are a variety of demands from different classes of society, videos posted on social media suggest young, working-class people make up the biggest numbers.
That could be more dangerous for the authorities because they have regarded the less well-off as loyal to the country, as opposed to the more middle-class protesters who took to the streets nine years ago.
According to official figures, 90 percent of those arrested were under 25 years old. Many young people are much more interested in jobs and change than in the religious idealism and anti-west sentiment that the old guard clings to.
Why cannot the government find a quick solution?
The government’s main challenge is to find a way to suppress the protests without provoking more anger as demonstrators attack police stations, banks and mosques.
Hard-line measures could agitate those Iranians who have been calling for the downfall of the clerical leadership, including Khamenei.
Authorities want to take control while avoiding a repeat of 2009. In June that year, a video showing protester Neda Agha-Soltan’s last moments after being shot in the chest made her an icon of the opposition movement.
The state has a powerful security apparatus but so far it has refrained from sending in the elite Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militia and plain-clothed security forces, which crushed the 2009 uprising and killed dozens of protesters.
Still, prolonged demonstrations could force the government to act. Iran’s leaders believe they can count on support from many of the generation that took part as youths in the 1979 revolution because of their ideological commitment and the economic gains they have made under the government, analysts say.
What are the main demands of the protesters?
Iranians across the country want higher wages and an end to alleged graft. But as the unrest has spread, protesters have directed their anger at the religious establishment.
Many also question the wisdom of Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East, where it has intervened in Syria and Iraq.
The country’s financial support for Palestinians and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah also angered Iranians, who want their government to focus on domestic economic problems instead.
Some demonstrators even shouted “Reza Shah, bless your soul” — a reference to Iran’s ruler from 1925 to 1941, and his Pahlavi dynasty which was overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s first leader.
What are Iran’s economic prospects?
President Hassan Rouhani championed a deal struck with world powers in 2015 to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of most international sanctions. However, he has failed to deliver on promises of prosperity in an oil-producing country where youth unemployment reached 28.8 percent this year.
Still, the economy has improved under Rouhani’s government and it is no longer in dire straits.
Inflation dropped into single digits for the first time in about a quarter century in June 2016. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth soared to 12.5 percent in the year to March 20, 2017, although this was almost entirely due to a leap in oil exports.
However, growth has been too slow for the overwhelmingly youthful population.
Iran’s recovery has been curbed by tensions with the US. President Donald Trump has raised the possibility that sanctions could be reimposed or new ones introduced.

Turkey votes amid questions over the elections’ integrity

Updated 2 min 44 sec ago

Turkey votes amid questions over the elections’ integrity

ANKARA: Turkey held its breath on Sunday for the outcome of the elections that could consolidate Recep Tayip Erdogan’s power or deal him a bloody nose from an increasingly emboldened opposition.

Since early morning, people have cast their votes both for the president and parliament. 

The elections mark Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system after the constitutional changes approved in April 2017 to abolish the office of prime minister and reduce legislative power by giving the president extra authority. 

The election campaign in Turkey this time was unfair but competitive. A preliminary report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the restrictions on freedom of association and speech.

Turkish media is almost completely owned by pro-government business groups, and the campaigns of opposition candidates were barely published or broadcast. 

The pro-Kurdish HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas ran his campaign to be the next president from his prison cell. He has been in pre-trial detention since Nov. 2016 on terrorism charges.

Demirtas was a charismatic challenger against Erdogan in the previous presidential election when he was free and getting huge support not only from Kurds but from the liberal and socio-democrat segments of Turkish society. 

The concerns about the elections’ integrity has topped the agenda during the campaigns. Some major changes to election procedures such as relocation of polling stations in south-eastern regions on security grounds and the validation of unsealed ballots have been criticized by a wide segment of society. 

Allegations of vote rigging in the south-eastern province of Urfa, where four people have been killed in pre-election tensions, were immediately heard by the Supreme Electoral Board of Turkey, which said on Sunday that investigations had been opened about the claims. 

“People are illegally placing mass votes and they are physically attacking election observers who attempt to prevent it,” said a young voter in the capital Ankara. “In which democratic country can 'Votes Are Stolen in Urfa' hashtag become a trend topic on Twitter in such a critical day?”

In the subsequent hours, a car stopped in the south-eastern town of Suruc, where three people carrying four bags with ballots were detained. 

This is not the first time that Turkish elections have been marked by fraud allegations. The angry citizens have once again mobilized to prevent any further vote rigging under grassroots initiatives such as Vote and Beyond by becoming volunteer ballot observers and monitoring the vote registration processes. 

Opposition-supporting social media users reminded others to not forget the misdeeds and the injustices that Erdogan’s ruling AKP committed during 16 years of its rule, such as silencing the media, steady weakening the rule of law and many illiberal practices in financial governance. 

But the election campaign has given hope to Erdogan’s opponents that he is no longer invincible.

Millions of enthusiastic voters have felt encouraged enough to pour on to the streets for opposition election rallies. 

The rising star during the campaign, Muharrem Ince, who is the candidate of the main opposition CHP, succeeded in gathering more than five million people in his latest rally in Istanbul, and an estimated three million participants in a rally in Izmir the day before. 

The opposition attempted to capitalize on the economic concerns, made promises for social benefits and committed to broadening democratic rights while improving relations with Western allies. 

One of the secrets behind Ince’s success was surely his non-polarizing political discourse, by giving strong signals that he would be the “president of all” when elected. 

“I would like to raise my child in a democratic and free country. She cannot vote now because she is four years old, but I vote for her future,” said Nalan Celik, a secular CHP voter who attended Ince’s Izmir rally. 

Although there are multiple scenarios for the outcome of the elections, according to most surveys the dominant scenario is Erdogan winning the first round and AKP and its nationalistic ally MHP forming the majority in the parliament.

However, given that there is still emergency rule in the country after the 2016 attempted coup and a spiral of silence among voters, the reliability of the polls is in question.