Author Archives: Paola Rivetti

Iran – Former vice-president Baghaei arrested

In this photo taken on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010, then Vice President Hamid Baghaei, second right, and then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visit the National Museum in Tehran, Iran. Iranian authorities on Monday, June 8, 2015, arrested Baghaei, who served under Ahmadinejad, in the second such detention of a senior official from the hard-line former leader’s administration, the official IRNA news agency reported. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

On June 8th, the former vice-president in charge of executive affairs, Hamid Baghaei, was detained for questioning on undisclosed charges, but it is believed that he is suspected to be linked to an embezzlement scandal the Iranian judiciary system has been investigating since last year. This is part of a nation-wide effort to punish and prevent money laundering and corruption promoted by Hassan Rouhani’s government. Since when he was elected as president in June 2013, Rouhani has been one of the staunchest critics of the previous administration, led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), accused of facilitating and being involved in a number of corruption scandals.

Judiciary spokesperson, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ajai, declared to Fars News Agency that ‘former vice-president Hamid Baghaei had a charge sheet issued against him by the judiciary and the prosecutor summoned him today for questioning’, but no further detail was added. Baghaei’s arrest is the second during this year. In fact, in January the former vice-president Mohammad Reza Rahimi was condemned to 5-year imprisonment and to pay a fine of nearly 10 billion rials, corresponding to 300,000 Euro, in connection with money laundering and an embezzlement scheme worth billions of dollars. Although Mohseni-Ajai did not specify the charges against Baghaei, it is believed that the two arrests are linked, therefore outlining a broader scenario where the very final objective might be the one of putting the former president Ahmadinejad under pressure.

Despite facing fierce opposition from the Supreme Leader, the current administration, the parliament and the security apparatus, Ahmadinejad seems to be willing to come back on the national political scene. Former vice-president Rahimi, a friend to Ahmadinejad, apparently wrote a letter to him after his arrest. The letter was later leaked and it linked Ahmadinejad to the corruption scandal. In May 2014, Iran executed billionaire businessman Mahafarid Amir Khosravi, accused of being at the heart of a state bank scam worth 2.6 billion dollars that started in 2007. Although Ahmadinejad denies any involvement, many believe that during his administration corruption was rife throughout those that controlled the country’s economy. Khosravi’s case was the largest fraud case since the 1979 Revolution.

As vice president, Rahimi faced allegations that he was the head of the ‘Fatemi Street Ring’, a group of government appointees and associates that during Ahmadinejad’s governments engaged in a number of embezzlements and bribe takings. Journalists and MPs have accused Rahimi of blackmailing the board of the National State Insurance Company with reports on the company engaging in financial impropriety, thus forcing the directors to sign off millions of dollars into accounts Rahimi controlled. Because Rahimi was appointed as vice president after Ahmadinejad got re-elected as president in 2009, it is speculated that he had a crucial role in help securing funding to sustain the president’s ascent.

On Sunday, president Hassan Rouhani called for the establishment of a ‘completely secure banking system’ to prevent money laundering as part of his administration’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign. Rouhani also stated that Parliament ‘is expected to speed up passing the money laundering bill.’ Rouhani held a cabinet session on June 7 to promote government transparency, stating that ‘A completely secure banking system for official and legal activities …[that] is extremely insecure for illegal activities must be established so that no one can abuse the banking system for money laundering’. The president urged officials to utilize legal measures to strengthen financial transparency and said that the ‘government and judiciary have to cooperate in this regard and the Parliament is also expected to speed up passing the money laundering bill.’

Currently, in Iran all top political figures are supporting efforts for increasing transparency, communicating to the private sector that the new government is cleaning up the scene to attract more genuinely private investments. Gholam Hossein Shafei, president of the Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Mining, has presented his road map for fighting corruption. His guidelines include: ‘political and structural reforms; serious reforms in management concepts; genuine privatization; growing role for nongovernmental organizations and civil society; growing space for independent media to supervise business and government activities; and the promotion of codes of conduct in the private and public sectors.’

The Supreme Leader seems to have given free hand to Rouhani’s efforts, considering that he effectively control Iran’s judiciary system. He is believed to have played a crucial role in making Rahimi’s arrest to happen, and it is likely that he had a similar relevance also in Baghaei’s current detention. It is no coincidence, in fact, he repeatedly called for transparency. Iran is indeed in the middle of a 20-year plan to decentralise and privatise its economy. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly warned officials against using the transition program as a chance to enrich themselves.

Kazakhstan – Nazarbayev re-elected as president. What’s ahead.

Hardly surprisingly, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been re-elected as Kazakhstan’s president on Sunday April 26. According to the Central Election Commission of Kazakhstan, there had been a record turnout of 95.11% for the poll and the votes in favour of Nazarbayev have been almost 98%. His two token-opponents gathered 2.3% the vote. The president, who is 74 years old and has ruled the country since independence in 1991, is now starting a new term, his fifth, in office. The Central Asian country has a semi-presidential system, and several constitutional reforms have been passed in order to ad hoc extend presidential terms or allow Nazarbayev to run for consecutive terms. Despite not being surprising, this election features some elements of interest to the observers. Kazakhstan has indeed gone through tough times recently, with both the economic situation being worsening as an effect of the Russian economic crisis; and an unclear future plan in terms of the post-Nazarbayev succession being increasingly a concern for the national elite and foreign investors. A sign of the impact of such growing concern and uncertainty was given by the government itself in first instance, when in March it called for early presidential election. During a TV appearance, Nazarbayev explained that ‘In the interests of the people… and for the sake of the general and strict implementation of the law, I have taken a decision and signed a decree calling an early presidential election for April 26.’ A more attentive analysis reveals how the Ukrainian crisis, the falling of the oil prices internationally, the constant devaluation of the national currency and the calls for the implementation of economic reforms can better explain the rush to re-confirm Nazarbayev as the leader of the executive in the country. Nazarbayev’s re-election has the benefit of solving all issues in one time, delaying the question of succession and reassuring the international finance community that the leader is firm in power and will keep the situation, politically and financially, stable.

Strengthening the economy and reforming the political system

The economic crisis in Kazakhstan has hit badly and the future is rather unclear considering the enduring difficulties that Russia, to whom Astana is diplomatically and economically very close, is currently going through. In January, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development cut the country’s growth projection for 2015 to 1.5% from 5.1%. In the meanwhile, prices of goods are rising, producers are having hard time in competing with foreign products from Russia and China and the national central bank is rumoured to be likely to devaluate the national currency, the tenge, again. It is worth mentioning that the tenge has lost almost 20% of its value in one day last year, triggering popular protests in a country known world-wide to be protests-free. Considering this situation, the decision of calling for early election has the goal of avoiding preparing for election in 2016 in order, on the contrary, to focus on strengthening the economy and prevent the crisis to further hit the country. Nazarbayev has acknowledged this difficult situation, and declared in November 2014 that “Kazakhstan, as a part of the global economy and a country close to the epicentre of geopolitical tension, is feeling the negative effects” adding that “the next years will be a time of global tests for the world, and for us too,” concluding that “not all the states will be able to adequately go through this stage. This frontier will be crossed only by the strong, united nations and countries.” The strategic plan that will constitute the backbone of the Kazakh exist strategy from the crisis is advanced in a document titled “The Path into the Future” which was presented by Nazarbayev in November and that involves the diversification of the economy and the active development of the non-oil sector as the main goals to be attained.

Nazarbayev also intend to reform the political system by the means of pro-democracy and meritocratic reforms after the economic situation will be stabilised. He is proposing a well-known rhetorical pattern sweeping through Central Asian authoritarian systems, whereby political pro-democracy reforms are to be carried out once the economy is strong enough. For instance, Karimov in Uzbekistan has adopted a number of liberal and democratic-minded documents, which set out the need of strengthening democratic and accountable good governance, civil society and the rule of law – liberal buzzwords that usually constitute authoritarians’ international discourse. Karimov, who ironically was re-elected last month and who is as old as Nazarbayev and faces similar succession challenges, has been an inspiration to Nazarbayev who declared that “first – a strong state and economy, and then – politics”. At the right time, then, Nazarbayev intends to tighten requirements for judges and law-enforcement bodies, and secure the rule of law. Also, he plans to create a modern, professional and autonomous state apparatus, with no room for nepotism, protectionism and corruption. Along with such changes, a new system will be introduced for paying the wages of officials in line with the efficiency of their contribution to the administrative process; and talented expatriates will be called back in Kazakhstan and offered a position in civil service. In order to start implementing these reforms, Nazarbayev intends appoint a special commission. Along with such themes, Nazarbayev’s electoral campaign has been much characterised by usual refrains of national harmony, celebration of national identity and condemnation of ethnic sectarianism.

Nazarbayev’s re-election also helped to easy the concerns for another issue, namely succession. The question of “who will come next” is particularly pressing now since no clear leadership is emerging. Many candidates have passed by, such as the president’s son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, but the appointment of Karim Massimov as Prime Minister in April 2014, may signal an ambition of succeeding Nazarbayev. In fact, his nomination could indicate Nazarbayev’s willingness to counterbalance the growing power of Astana mayor, Imangali Tasmagambetov, or an attempt to weaken Timur Kulibayev’s influence, his son-in-law, another likely candidate for succession. After all, Turkmenistan has opted for this pattern of succession, with the former president Niyazov appointing the then little known Prime Minister Berdimukhamedov as his successor. Nevertheless, the president Nazarbayev has consistently avoided indicating any preference and he is still doing so: in a recent piece in the Financial Times, he portrayed Kazakhstan as a country navigating from despotism to democracy and therefore referred to the polls as the appropriate venue to select the national leaders.

Uzbekistan – Karimov re-elected: what’s ahead?

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On Sunday 29th of March, the Uzbek people voted to choose the head of the state in national election and, as expected, Islam Karimov has been successfully re-elected as president for the fourth time. With a turnout of over 91% of the current electorate, 90% of the voters cast a vote in favour of the incumbent president. The Uzbek constitution would not allow candidates to run for more than two terms, but an exception has been made for Karimov who got his third mandate already in 2007 and in 2011 ordered a constitutional revision to curtail the presidential mandate from seven to five years. As international monitors noticed, since then, Uzbek officials have justified Karimov’s decision to continue to run for office by pointing out that terms of a different length cannot be considered consecutive. Constitutional revisions are a popular move in Central Asia where Karimov and other neighbouring authoritarian leaders, such as the Kazakh president Nazarbayev, who is also running for the presidency in anticipated election at the end of April, have used them to justify their permanence in power. However, this election comes at an interesting time. While Karimov’s re-election is far from signalling any element of instability in the Central Asian country, it can be interpreted as a way to minimise elements of uncertainty such as Karimov’s ageing and health conditions, the future of the country and the outcome of the current struggle for power, which is going on within the Uzbek elite in anticipation of the post-Karimov era.

The election

Sunday’s presidential election saw the participation of four candidates, all nominated by their political parties. Incumbent president Karimov was nominated by the Liberal Democratic Party; Khatamjon Ketmonov by the People’s Democratic Party; Narimon Umarov by the Social Democratic Adolat (Justice) party; and Akmal Saidov by the Democratic National Renaissance Party. None of the candidates was a serious opponent or challenger to Karimov and according to a number of sources, they have spent their electoral campaigns by praising Karimov’s rule. Khatamjon Ketmonov, who is 45 years old, has been the chairman of the Central Council of the People’s Democratic Party since April 2013. He was deputy governor of the Andijan province and in December 2014, Ketmonov was elected a member of the lower house of parliament. Since January 2015, he has been at the head of his party’s parliamentary faction. Nariman Umarov, who is 62 years old, was appointed head of the State Committee of Nature Protection of Uzbekistan and in 2013 he became the chairman of the Social Democratic Adolat party. Akmal Saidov, who is 56, is the director of the National Centre of Human Rights of Uzbekistan and the chairman of the parliamentary committee of democratic institutions. The three challengers lost the electoral race to Karimov, who has been elected for the next five years. He garnered the votes of over 17 million (corresponding to 90% of the total number of the voters) over a total electorate of nearly 21 million voters, said Mirza Ulugbek Abdusalomov, the chairman of the Uzbek Central Election Commission.

This election has been criticised by both independent observers and by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). OCSE vote monitors said the Uzbek poll lacked genuine opposition to Karimov and that the election was marred by legal and organisational shortcomings. Independent observers, such as Alexei Malashenko, a central Asia expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, and Human Rights Watch, have called the election ‘a sham’ and draw attention to the lack of a real opposition to Karimov, while thousands of opponents are jailed or in exile. Fear and suspicion have hampered open political discussion and confrontation, while the media have been dominated by Karimov’s propaganda. In addition, the Islamist threat has helped Uzbek authorities to enforce special security measures and to avoid an environment of openness, limiting contacts with the international press and foreign media.

As for his political programme, Karimov has already outlined the priorities of his next executive during the end-of-year speech he delivered in December 2014. The crucial priority is economic development, with a planned reduction of the role of the state in the economy. Future reforms in this policy area will most likely be clarified by a presidential decree and privatization program in 2015. He has not discussed the most recent constitutional reforms approved in March last year which, crucially, transferred presidential power and duties to the prime minister while increasing the role of the parliament.

Struggle for power and political stability

It is not a secret that Uzbekistan is torn by an ongoing struggle for power between Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the intelligence service, the prime minister Mirziyaev, the finance minister Azimov and the Karimov family (which is internally divided between the eldest daughter Gulnara and the younger one, Lola Karimova-Tillayeva with whom the mother united in coalition), who are competing to shape post-Karimov Uzbekistan. For the moment, Gulnara Karimova is under house arrest and involved in an international corruption scandal, to the benefit of her competitors. Islam Karimov is old and the succession to his presidency is unclear. According to the constitution, the speaker of the Senate would become interim president in the event that Karimov is unable to perform the duties of the office. In the meanwhile, experts also highlight that the constitutional reform of March 2014 significantly increased the powers of the prime minister. Therefore, some are waiting to see whether president Karimov will mentor the prime minister Mirziyaev to handle the country’s economic and social matters and increase his prominence, or whether Karimov will remain the sole prominent decision-maker in Uzbekistan. In addition, giving that the power of the parliament also increased, the majiles is supposed to become a real agora of discussion and debate among parties, thus keeping the prime minister accountable. However, according to Alexei Malashenko, Karimov is likely not to consider any change of direction for the moment. On the contrary, because of the possible destabilising effects of the ‘war for power’, he is more likely to tighten up his grip on power.

John MacLeod, a Central Asia analyst of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, highlights however the presence of challenging elements to Karimov’s stable rule. He points out to the crowd that gathered to mourn the death of the Islamic scholar Sheikh Muhammad Sadeq Muhammad Yusuf on 11th of March, highlighting how unusual such a public gathering was in strictly controlled Tashkent. MacLeod linked this event to a diffused, yet still underground and not publicly expressed, feeling of distrust and discontent with the regime, whereby people have little faith in the state and its institutions and no means to express such a disappointment. In addition, worries about the economic performance of the country, which is going through a period of recession due to Russian economic difficulties, widespread corruption and large emigration flux might turn into a decisive mix to spread political discontent.

Kazakhstan – Explaining the early presidential election

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In mid-February, the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, a constitutional body chaired by the 74-year-old Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, aired the idea of an early presidential election. The election, originally scheduled for the end of 2016, will now take place on the 26th April 2015. Under constitutional law, which allows Nazarbayev to seek re-election however many times he wants, an early presidential election is set by the decision of the acting president. It needs to be held within two months of such a decision. In addition, the Constitution requires holding separate presidential and parliamentary elections, which according to the previous calendar, could have ended up scheduled at the end of 2016.

Support for the initiative has been voiced throughout the country by all institutions, with different reasons being cited. Experts widely agree on the fact that a general concern with stability is at the core of the change of date of the presidential election.

‘Snowballing’ support

The Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan (APK) was the first institutional body to call for early elections. The institution, representing more than 800 ethnic associations throughout the country, cited ‘numerous appeals of citizens,’ and the need to give the president ‘a new mandate’ to implement his economic programme. The council then called on MPs in the Majles, the lower chamber of the Parliament, to take on and support an early presidential election. Indeed, nine out of the 107 members of the Majles are elected by the APK, according to national law. The lower house of the parliament backed the proposal with 107 votes in favour, while the ruling party Nur Otan also echoed the call. In an interview with national TV Khabar on February 14th, the poet Olzhas Suleimenov declared that ‘in these difficult times, the leader bears special responsibility. It is then important to support Nursultan Nazarbayev now … Kazakhstan needs to go through several very tough years. We will preserve the country, preserve the people, and develop. .. I am confident our people will support this proposal.’

On February 25, Nazarbayev accepted the invitation and set the date for the early election. During a televised address to the nation, he announced that ‘In the interests of the people… and for the sake of the general and strict implementation of the law, I have taken a decision and signed a decree calling an early presidential elections for April 26’.

Nazarbayev said that he had received numerous messages from citizens expressing their anxiety about the country’s future in light of growing instability and escalating conflicts in the region. The incumbent president quoted a letter from Nina Misochenko, a resident of one of the country’s central provinces. She wrote to the President that she ‘prays daily for our children, for peace and concord in our country, so that no confrontation and no war will come to our home.’ The woman said she cherished the fact that the people of Kazakhstan live quiet and confident lives, dedicating themselves to hard work and raising their children in an atmosphere of peace and stability. Also, citing national security concerns in light of current geopolitical tensions, the president said he felt there is a growing demand among his compatriots for a ‘continuation of balanced domestic and foreign policies.’

Addressing the other concern of the Kazakh population and of the elite as well, Nazarbayev also mentioned the negative effect that political stability might have on the national economy. With the negative consequence that the global economic crisis and falling oil prices are having on Kazakhstan’s economy, the people of Kazakhstan, the president said, need ‘confidence in their future … maintaining jobs, stability, welfare benefits, salaries, scholarships.’

A few days later, on February 28, the country’s Foreign Ministry invited the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Assembly of OSCE to observe the early presidential election in Kazakhstan.

Explaining early election: economic and regional stability

Stability is at the core of growing political concerns in Kazakhstan. From geo-political and strategic points of view, the Ukrainian crisis has re-ignited anxiety in Central Asia, where significant Russian minorities are present and where the national populations are very diversified with the possibility of ethnic conflict; the discord between Moscow and other Central Asian capitals, among which is Astana, over the Eurasian Economic Union and sanctions against Western produces; and the recent eruption of the jihadi threat in Central Asia – an area in which, however, Astana and all of the other Central Asian capitals are heavily dependent on Moscow when it comes to anti-terrorism measures, make the general regional context far from being stable and safe.

However, it is mainly economic stability that motivates the call for an early election in Kazakhstan. On February 11, in a speech to the government, Nazabayev admitted that the republic was facing economic difficulties and that the government would need to cut spending for 2015-2017. In addition, in the recent months, the oil-exporting country has been heavily affected by falling oil prices, which have lowered from around $120 per barrel in June 2014 to $50 – $60 per barrel currently, and also from the unstable economic situation in Russia, itself hit by lower oil prices and the West’s sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine. Nazarbayev said that he did not plan to devaluate the national currency again, as he did in February 2014, causing protests all over the country. However growth forecasts are not encouraging, with Kazakhstan downgraded to 1.5% growth this year, from a 5.1% forecast in September by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. In such a context, the ambitious economic strategy developed by the government called ‘Nurly Zhol’ seems to set unreachable targets. Precisely because of this, ‘we fully support the initiative to hold early elections and we hope that Head of State will continue the fruitful work in the best interests of our people,” said the head of Almaty Association of Entrepreneurs Viktor Yambayev talking about the necessity of implementing the Nurly Zhol – Path to the Future new economic programme and the long-term Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy’ despite uncertainties.

Considering the relevance of economic stability, Dosym Satpayev, director of the Kazakhstan Risks Assessment Group, declared that it is likely that the decision to call for an early vote had been building for some time. After an assessment of the unpopular economic measures to be taken, it is likely that the elite and Nazarbayev himself decided to implement them after an election to counteract the likely loss of support for the government. Similarly, Yang Jin of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences declared that ‘Nazarbayev wants to reduce uncertainties by winning presidency again, and to ensure the consistency of his policies’.

Whatever the reason, no one really doubts that Nazarbayev will be re-elected.

Afghanistan – The government of national unity in crisis over electoral reform

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In September 2014, after months of deadlock over the contested electoral results, the two presidential candidates signed a power-sharing deal to protect national unity, introducing the office of the Chief Executive. The relationship between Ashraf Ghani, President, and Abdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive, has not always been rosy with frequent conflicts erupting between the two highest offices of the state. The latest chapter in this troubled relationship is the conflict over electoral reform. There is a shared agreement that electoral reform is of fundamental importance in order to ensure a fair electoral process on the occasion of the next Parliamentary election which will take place in September 2015. Last Thursday, Abdullah declared that the upcoming parliamentary election must not be held unless the national electoral system, which he forcefully criticised during the negotiations for the power-sharing agreement in 2014, is changed.

After becoming the leaders of the National Unity Government, Ghani and Abdullah promised to reform the electoral system in order to prevent crises in future elections. Some amendments are under discussion in the Parliament, in particular in the appointment process and responsibilities of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Further changes include statutes making the IEC a temporary body only formed during election time, requiring members of the commission to go through a re-appointment process in a bid to boost their accountability.

However, these changes are not considered to be enough by law experts, MPs and by foreign donors. Members of the Judicial Commission of the House of Representatives are strongly in favor of further reform. ‘Afghanistan was not brought to crisis by Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, but Afghanistan was brought to crisis by the corruption of the electoral commissions,’ said Muhammad Abdo, a member of the Parliament’s Judicial Commission, referring to the period of uncertainty prior to the formation of the National Unity Government.

Also foreign donors and international institutions are calling for extensive reform. The report by EU chief observer, Thijs Berman, released in December 2014, makes several recommendations, calling for an independent board to nominate all members of Afghanistan’s IEC and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). The report argues that investigation mechanisms around electoral offenses and corruption need to be reinforced and that a biometric voter identification data base should be introduced. Also, measures to ensure that women have access to secure and appropriate polling locations, led by female staff, should be implemented.

Abdullah agrees with the necessity of boosting the reform, not surprisingly as the IEC and the ECC were both accused by him during the election to have conspired in favor of his rival Ashraf Ghani winning the presidential race. Mujeebul Rahman Rahimi, a spokesman for the Chief Executive, recalled that the reform of Afghanistan’s election laws and electoral commissions was a precondition to Abdullah’s acceptance of the power-sharing plan with Ghani. ‘Reform in the electoral system, election laws and election institutions – who were directly involved in the fraud – was among the preconditions to the formation of the national unity government,’ Mr. Rahimi declared on Thursday. ‘Reform in the electoral system is important, and without it, there will be no elections’ he added.

However, there is uncertainty over how and what the reform should change. Mr. Rahimi declared that the main reason behind the delay in reform is disagreement between Ghani and Abdullah over ‘reform details’. In particular, ‘regarding the creation of an electoral reform commission, the President Ghani’s opinion was that the commission should be created after the announcement of the cabinet, but our [meaning the Office of the Chief Executive, Mr. Abdullah] preference was to create it after the inauguration and it should have started its work and should not have been related to the cabinet’.

Also, despite agreeing on the necessity of reforming the system, the IEC is calling for caution. The IEC’s commissioner Sareer Ahmad Barmak declared that nobody including the President could fire the IEC commissioners unless they prove the crimes of IEC officials. ‘Reforms are required both in the electoral system and the structure of the election commission,’ Barmak said, however adding that ‘some personal reforms are also being proposed from outside which is intolerable for us’. Moreover, commentators maintain that MPs do not have the legal right to change the election laws this year. ‘Based on the law, the House does not have the right to bring changes to the electoral law during the last year of their tenure,’ university professor Tahir Hashemi told, adding that ‘they can bring changes in the appointment, jurisdiction and authorities of the electoral commissions.’

There is a widespread concern that the gridlock over the reform could spark further uncertainty in the country, to the point of bringing about protests and disorder should the upcoming parliamentary election be held under the same law. Fuelling possible popular distrust and lack of confidence in the electoral process, there are rumors that the members of the electoral commissions are holding meetings with MPs to dissuade them from supporting the legislation by promising favors in exchange for upcoming elections.

Kyrgyzstan – Talks of constitutional reforms and the next Presidential election

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On December 1, the Kyrgyz President, Almazbek Atambayev, declared that he was not willing to change the constitution in order to be eligible to be re-elected for another 6-year term. In sight of the next presidential election, scheduled for March 2017, and considering recent calls for amendments to the constitution, Atambayev’s declaration is very relevant as it could set the context for the next presidential race while reinforcing Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary institutions. Indeed, it might further mark the difference between Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian republics, where presidents have shown no reluctance to deploy constitutional reforms to remain in power.

Atambayev became president of Kyrgyzstan in 2011 after the constitution was amended in 2010. Currently, the constitution allows presidents to exert power for a single term. They cannot be re-elected subsequently after that term is over. Besides making it clear that he will not infringe this constitutional limitation, Atambayev also recalled how difficult it was to be the president of a country that ‘has already suffered from two revolutions’ and where ‘control over the current situation after the revolution is just a ball-breaker, especially if you really work, not steal’.

In recent months, proposing for constitutional reform have been on the rise. Despite this, the current constitution does not allow for any change until 2020, with the goal of stabilizing the political situation in the country while protecting the current constitutional architecture from change and instability. This is the reason why the proposal advanced by the leader of the Ar-Namys party, Feliks Kulov, to change Kyrgyzstan’s name through a referendum set of heated discussion in the country and abroad. Indeed, according to many analysts and to Atyr Abdrahmatova, leader of the civil society organization Civic Union for Reforms and Results, the suggestion was simply a pretext for testing how the Kyrgyz public would react to the idea of amending the constitution through yet another referendum. If the reaction was positive, then political forces could have added additional questions to the agenda of the referendum, such as transforming the distribution of power between national institutions. Another MP, Karganbek Samakov, who recently left the governmental Ata Meken faction, proposed a draft law that would have repealed the ban on the constitutional reform. He declared that ‘the constitution is a living and moving body and it needs to be changed when necessary. Especially now, some of its rules are often violated, are not always enforced and are contradictory in their content.’ Samakov enjoys the support of some of his colleagues, who noticed that the new Parliament, which will be elected in 2015, might be positive towards reforming the basic law.

These initiatives are seen as not coincidental and potentially prepare the ground for the next possible modification of the country’s constitution, which would open new scenarios for the country. Furthermore, local experts suspect that the president is maneuvering to remain in office beyond his current term. According to political scientist Uran Botobekov, the President might be preparing to run for re-election in 2017. That said, Atambayev clearly stated that he has no intention to change the country’s constitution in his favour as his predecessors did and will not become an authoritarian leader.

Uzbekistan – The struggle for succession

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On Saturday November 15, the Uzbek president’s grandson Islam Karimov, named after his grandfather, released an interview to the BBC to bring attention to the case of his mother Gulnara, who has been held unofficially under house arrest since last March. This is only the latest episode of a family saga (Presidential Power Blog reported on this case here and here) whereby the members of the presidential family are fighting for power ahead of the presidential election scheduled for early 2015 – however in a situation where the incumbent president does not seem willing to leave power.

The young Islam Karimov had already lobbied for his mother’s release at the end of June 2014, when he gave an interview to the Russian channel Ren TV. During the interview he made clear that his mother was the victim of ‘powerful individuals’ who want to get rid of her fearing that she will standing for president. In his latest BBC interview, the young Karimov also made an appeal to his grandfather to ‘understand the extent of the manipulation’ around him and to understand that ‘we would never go against you and do what they say we would do, and I hope you fix the situation, as I know you have the power to do so’. The young Karimov indeed proposes a reading of the current situation consistent with his mother’s, who has claimed for over a year now that she is the victim of a conspiracy plotted by her mother, her younger sister and Rustam Inoyatov (the head of the powerful National Security Agency) behind the president’s back. According to Islam Karimov, the president is prevented from having any information about the current events. In late 2013, Gulnara accused her mother and sister of keeping the president in a state of ignorance and claimed to be the victim of judicial and physical persecution orchestrated by Inoyatov.

Aside from the gossipy interest that a Gulnara-like character raises among observers (a glamourous pop singer, businesswoman, politician, diplomat, philanthropist and fashion designer), experts are carefully watching for Karimov’s moves in search of information about his succession. According to an analyst, and contrary to what the young Karimov claims, the hypothesis that the president is unaware of what is going on is rather unlikely and, according to the Russian political scientist Alexey Malashenko, Gulnara’s arrest is relevant to the issue of succession because it clearly underlines that President Karimov is neither ready nor willing to leave power. Not only is it the case that Gulnara Karimova now has no chance of succeeding her father, but, according to Malashenko, her fall from grace indicates that Islam Karimov is tired of all the speculation about his successor. In addition, the president also seems to be demonstrating to the public that all are equal in the eyes of the law, even his own daughter, who was accused of corruption and fraud in Switzerland and Sweden. Moreover, Gulnara went as far as to criticise some of the human-rights abuses committed in Uzbekistan under the reign of her father, a move that Karimov deeply disliked and that brought about a strong reaction on the part of the president. Furthermore, analysts contend that even Karimov’s decision to back constitutional amendments that would transfer some power from the presidency to the legislative and executive branches is a tactical move and is not a sign that he is stepping back from politics.

With the president still in power, the choice about succession seems to remain uncertain. Indeed, Uzbekistan may be moving towards a presidency-for-life model. In that case, Malashenko argues, ‘neither Prime Minister Mirzieev nor Minister of Finance Rustam Azimov stand a chance of succeeding while Islam Karimov is still alive’.

Iran – Conservative Parliament rejects President-nominated Minister of Science

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Yesterday, October 29, the Iranian parliament has rejected the President Rouhani-nominated new Minister of Science and Education, Mahmoud Nili Ahmadabadi, after Reza Faraji-Dana was removed from the same post by the parliament in August.

This is the latest chapter in an on-going battle between the majority conservative factions in parliament and the moderate president Hassan Rouhani. The stakes on high because the deadline for the definitive nuclear deal with the 5 + 1 is approaching and Iranian conservatives do not seem ready to accept that it will be their moderate, reformist enemy who will be remembered as the President who put an end to sanctions and to the decades-long cold war against the United States.

The latest blow to Rouhani came yesterday morning when after almost three hours of debate Nili-Ahmadabadi lost the investiture vote with 160 votes against his nomination and 79 in favour. Nili-Ahmadabadi was nominated by Rouhani last month and was introduced to parliament on October 22. The conservative opponents of Rouhani have accused him of proposing candidates who are friendly to the West or who back ‘sedition’ against the ruling establishment, reviving anti-Green Movement rhetoric.

During the discussion in parliament, MPs questioned Nili-Ahmadabadi over his stance in 2009 during the mass protests against the re-election of President Ahmadinejad. He admitted that he did sign a letter with fellow academics condemning attacks on student protesters inside university campuses. However, he said that ‘none of my colleagues nor I have crossed the red lines set by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. You will not find a single one of us who overstepped those limits’ and added that ‘all my colleagues believe in the system (of the Islamic republic) and acted within the framework of it’.

AFP reports a Western diplomat in Tehran saying that the post of science minister is so sensitive because Iranian universities were ‘very politically active and difficult to manage.’ The same source also reports the declaration of Ahmad Shirazi, a university professor, who criticised the use of the word ‘sedition’ by conservative and principalist MPs. ‘This question of sedition has become a stick by which fundamentalists and conservatives impose their will,’ he declared. Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a conservative MP, declared that the responsibility for the current stalemate falls on the shoulders of the government, which is unable to find a suitable candidate who needs to be able and willing to control university campuses and prevent disorders.

For his part, president Rouhani reacted to the accusations of the MPs by recalling that universities need a peaceful atmosphere to be able to promote themselves as centres of science and research. He said that the ministry has a specific importance, adding ‘we want universities to be aware of political issues but not borrow their slogans from politicians.’

Afghanistan – Ex-presidential rivals strike power-sharing deal. Ghani new president

Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai

After months of mutual accusations and threats of major political turmoil and mobilisation, the two rival presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, reached an agreement to solve the national crisis and form a government of national unity. In a televised ceremony on Sunday, they signed a power-sharing agreement that makes of Ghani the new President of Afghanistan and Abdullah the Chief Executive Officer of the government, a new office for Afghanistan similar to a Prime Minister. Abdullah might also nominate someone else to occupy the office. Ghani is expected to be sworn in as the new President of the country on Sept. 29. This agreement and the formation of a government of national unity have been greeted by the international community as welcome news, since the atmosphere of bitter conflict and political uncertainty was damaging the already fragile security of the country.

From a technical point of view, the agreement changes quite significantly the structure of government of Afghanistan. The highly-centralised presidential system will now have to face a number of challenges to integrate the new role, the CEO, in its functions considering that it will share a number of prerogatives with the president, such as for instance control over key institutions including the Army.  The agreement gives substantial powers to the newly created position, defining it as having the functions of an executive prime minister. According to the agreement, a new institution is created, the council of ministers, which will work in parallel with the President’s cabinet. The council of ministers will be headed by the CEO and will include two deputies and all cabinet ministers. The council will implement the executive decisions of the government. As for the President’s cabinet, it will be headed by the President and will include all ministers. The CEO will be responsible for managing the cabinet’s implementation of government policies, and will report on progress to the president directly and in the cabinet. Another clause calls for parity in the selection of personnel between the president and the CEO at the level of head of key security and economic institutions.

Although relief is understandable, there are a number of unclear points that cast a certain shadow on the optimism. First of all, the Taliban have already expressed their opposition to the pact and rejected the national unity government pact as a ploy orchestrated by the US administration. This means that national security is still in danger and that this government will not be a government of national unity. Secondly, it is not clear how the power-sharing agreement will work, and how the role and notion of a CEO will be received by the population and local elites. Given the rather conflictual relationship between Abdullah and Ghani, it is not certain that the national unity government, with two powerful offices within it, will be actually able to work or whether will be torn apart by internal conflicts. Thirdly, the technical implementation of the agreement might take a long time, as the CEO is a new institution that needs to be integrated in the Constitution. Under current provisions, the agreement calls on the Loya Jirga to amend the Constitution to create the position of an executive prime minister within two years.

The new president and the new government are expected to rule Afghanistan during very sensitive times, as the withdrawal of US troops is to be completed by December 2014.

Iran – Intraelite conflicts keep Rouhani’s government in check

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The moderate president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has again come under attack from conservative political groups, in stark contrast to the beginning of his mandate more than one year ago. Conflicting positions over nuclear negotiations with the West, over the Internet-freedom and, more recently, the impeachment of Reza Faraji-Dana, Rouhani’s reformist Minister of Science, Research and Technology, seem to signal that Rouhani’s conservative rivals are gaining momentum.

Within the institutional system of the Islamic Republic, the President is a crucial office, but it is the Supreme Leader, namely Ali Khamenei, who enjoys massive power and extensive control over the policy-making process and pivotal institutions, such as the judiciary system, the media, security forces and, notably, the Sepah-e Pasdaran or Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) (all potential proxies to deploy in the Leader vs President opposition). Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic indeed, successive oppositions between these two offices have brought about numerous institutional crisis and stalemates, which experts have operationalised into the notions of ‘suspended equilibrium’ and ‘dual sovereignty.’

Currently, the Supreme Leader can not only count on his constitutional extensive power, but also on the conservative-led majority in the Parliament, which is very vocal in its opposition to Rouhani’s policies inspired by diplomatic and cultural easiness.

In June and July, after conflicts between Rouhani and the IRGC Commander Major General Ali Jafari, the conservative factions attacked Rouhani’s government-led diplomatic efforts in the context of the nuclear negotiations, with the purpose of condemning Rouhani’s rapprochement with the West, which they consider as dangerous for the revolutionary nature of the Islamic Republic. ‘Negotiations on behalf of the system of the Islamic Republic must follow the path of Islamic ideals,’ declared Karimi-Ghadoosi, an hardline MP, while accusing the incumbent Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif, of ‘selling out Iranian interests.’ Fears of ‘cultural invasion’ on the part of the West, should conflicts with the US and the EU be resolved, seem to be the most pressing concern for conservatives, in particular after the boosting of regional turmoil during the summer which have secured Iran’s safety in the region. According to Payam Mohseni indeed, conservatives in Iran are ‘very confident about their rising power and regional standing, and there was no sense of urgency or need to compromise and resolve the nuclear standoff.  They believed to have gained much from the regional turmoil in Syria and recently in Iraq with the rise of ISIS.  Most elites also discussed the sanctions as an opportunity and divine gift for economic development and self-sufficiency – a threat that could be handled and overcome. The main difference between moderates and hardliners was that the latter were more skeptical of the utility of nuclear negotiations and the benefit of cooperating with the United States on regional matters.’

In addition to the nuclear program, conflicts between the moderates and the conservatives have also emerged over cultural freedom. A well-known case is the one of the Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, who declared that Iranian authorities should introduce measures that would prevent access to the ‘negative, un-Islamic features’ of high-speed Internet and 3G services, whose licenses have just been awarded to three mobile broadband companies, in order to prevent the spread of corruption. Rouhani responded by urging clerics not to oppose the Internet and not to ‘cut off’ Iran from the rest of the world. Noting that the internet is vital to the younger generation, he said: ‘If we do not move towards the new generation of mobile today and resist it, we will have to do it tomorrow. If not, the day after tomorrow.’ This is just the last chapter of an older struggle between the conservative establishment and the government over Internet freedom.

Along with conflicts over Internet freedom and nuclear negotiations, the President is also facing the conservative-led Parliament’s attacks over his government. After conflicts over cabinet appointments, on August 20th the Parliament successfully impeached the Minister of Science, Research and Technology Faraji-Dana. With this move, the most conservative elements in Parliament have had a significant political impact. Faraji-Dana was particularly popular among academics thanks to his efforts for de-securitising and revitalising Iran’s universities, in accord with Rouhani’s stance on academic freedom. Moreover, Faraji-Dana brought back to universities the so-called ‘starred’ students and professors, namely those who were expelled because of their political views expressed during and after the highly-contested 2009 presidential election. The Minister’s impeachment was criticised by relevant political personalities backing Rouhani’s administration. The factional conflict is however ongoing as the first vice-president declared that the government’s investigation over the handling of student scholarships will continue despite the Minister’s impeachment, in a bid of unveiling the politically motivated management of grants in favour of conservative students and to the detriment of reformist ones during Ahmadinejad’s mandates.

Despite the relevance of the ongoing struggle between the moderate administration and the conservative establishment, this is ‘politics as usual’ in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indeed, neither impeachments of moderate ministers nor attacks on moderate presidents are breaking-news in the country. Not only is the conflict between moderate reformists and conservative not a novelty, but also the fact those factional groups are proxies of the President and the Supreme Leader does not constitute any surprise. Indeed the contraposition between Khamenei and Rouhani mirrors previous President vs Leader contrappositions, and therefore is in continuity with the political and historical trajectory since 1979.