Last January I remember a bunch of troubling things happening shortly after the new year, like a new round of fighting in Kashmir, a new North Korean nuclear test, and another episode in the Iran-Saudi conflict, and, hey, I guess in hindsight we should have had some idea it was going to be a shittier-than-usual year. My point is that writing about those things became sort of a “welcome to 2016” series even though when the year began I hadn’t intended to write anything like that. But now I figure it’s a tradition, and even though we’ve managed to get through the first four days of the year without any potentially world-altering crises cropping up–and yes, I get that it’s early–I’m going to try it again this year. This time, again barring any major crises, I’ll look at a few things that I think might play out over the course of the year that maybe don’t have the potential to kill us all–unless one of them does kill us all, in which case, well, nobody will be around to remember I just wrote that. I’ll scatter these around here and there over the rest of the month.
For today I’d like to talk about something fairly mundane–politics, and primarily elections. Elections happen all the time, even in countries where they don’t mean much (by which I mean places like, say, Syria or Uzbekistan, but feel free to insert your American election joke here), and only very rarely do the results of any particular election wind up truly threatening mankind (feel free to insert your 2016 joke here). But there are a few elections coming up this year that may be of some importance, and there’s also a developing non-electoral political story that bears watching. To wit:
I’ve written about Iran’s upcoming presidential election so many times this will mostly be a repeat, but to me it’s the most consequential election of 2017 given how the world looks right now. The vote, which will take place in May, will (assuming the clerical powers-that-be allow it to be conducted fairly) be a referendum (obviously) on Hassan Rouhani’s first term in office and will determine, to a large extent, Iran’s place in the world for the next four years. If, for example, we can expect US-Iran relations to take a turn for the worse under the Trump administration, Rouhani’s reelection would minimize the damage as much as possible. If he were to be defeated by a more hardline challenger, then the chances of a serious conflict between Washington and Tehran, rather than simply a souring of their already still mostly sour relations, would become much more likely. A hardliner would also threaten to wreck Iran’s thawing relations with the EU, and might even risk its friendly ties with Moscow, if it were, say, to be inflexible on the future of Syria, or to take provocative actions that might challenge the nuclear deal. A more hardline administration might also take more provocative action toward the Saudis, exacerbating the Middle East’s already chaotic security situation.
Rouhani is, at this point, the odds-on favorite to win reelection. It’s cliche to note that no Iranian president since current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who held the office from 1981 through 1989, has ever failed to win reelection. But in a country with a, let’s say, “managed” political system, like Iran, a pattern like that suggests that the political system values continuity and stability over questions about ideology. So Rouhani has that going for him. But more importantly, his two biggest potential rivals, Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Iranian presidents are limited to two consecutive terms but can run for a third term after being out of power for at least one election cycle), are both apparently out of the race–Soleimani opted not to run, and Ahmadinejad was “encouraged” to stay out of the race by Khamenei. Soleimani is maybe the most popular figure in the country and Ahmadinejad was polling in the neighborhood of 10 points–close enough for concern–behind Rouhani in the most recent surveys, so their absence is clearly good for Rouhani.
The highest-profile remaining potential challenger is Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who finished a distant second to Rouhani in 2013. But one of Ghalibaf’s political allies said just a couple of days ago that Ghalibaf won’t run unless all the “Principalists” (reactionaries, more or less) agree on him as their candidate, thereby avoiding the possibility of multiple conservative candidates splitting the right-wing vote. But the various Principalist parties all seem to be coalescing around different candidates, so Ghalibaf would have a tall order in front of him to clear the field. And even if he did, this is a guy who lost to Rouhani in 2013 by about 35 points, so it would be an uphill climb. Saeed Jalili, former head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, is also running, but he finished in third place in 2013 and would be counting on Rouhani’s support absolutely cratering to have a shot at winning.
Which, come to think of it, isn’t exactly impossible to envision. While the lack of a single major challenger is a big point in Rouhani’s favor, almost everything else is going against him. An IranPoll.com poll taken last summer showed that public sentiment over the nuclear deal is down–imagine how much further it will decline once Trump gets his hands on it–public unhappiness over the state of the Iranian economy is up, and Rouhani’s popularity is down. With oil prices probably continuing to hover well below Iran’s estimated “break even” point, and with the Trump administration actively looking for ways to block Iran from reaping any further benefit from the nuclear deal, it’s unlikely that the Iranian economy will improve enough, or fast enough at least, for Rouhani to get a boost before the election. His biggest success, the nuclear deal, has elicited so little tangible benefit for Iranian citizens that it’s now going to be used against him (any similarity you may draw here to the Affordable Care Act is entirely coincidental but also kind of fair). So he’s clearly vulnerable.
It’s also possible, in the sense that it’s not impossible, that Iran’s Guardian Council, the body that vets candidates for office and disqualifies those deemed insufficiently committed to the Islamic Republic’s ideology, could bar Rouhani from standing for his own reelection. That possibility, however, is exceedingly remote and would cause precisely the kind of instability that Iran’s political establishment usually tries to avoid.
I don’t have any particular insight about potential outcomes of Lebanon’s parliamentary election, which should take place this summer. The important thing is simply that the election actually happen, which seems like a silly thing to write until you remember that this election was supposed to happen in 2013, and then in 2014, but was postponed until 2017 amid the general dysfunction of Lebanese politics and security concerns around spillover from the Syrian civil war. This is a country that took over two years just to elect a president, and the Lebanese presidency isn’t much more than a figurehead gig. I would expect Saad Hariri to continue as Lebanese PM; his Future Movement Party is the largest single party in the parliament, and his deal to endorse Michel Aoun as president, the one that landed him back in the PM office to begin with, likely means he gets to form the next government even if his March 14 coalition winds up in the overall minority.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Here the fun is in seeing if this presidential election, which was supposed to happen in 2016 but now looks like it will take place toward the end of this year, will actually happen. Joseph Kabila has theoretically agreed that he’ll hold a vote and even that he won’t be a candidate, but seeing is believing.
In December 2015, Armenian voters approved, though not without some allegations of funny business, changes to the country’s constitution that were designed to…well, really they were designed to keep incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan in charge of the country once his second and therefore final term as president expires in 2018. Starting in 2018, coincidentally, the Armenian presidency will be reduced to a mostly symbolic position, and the real power will lay with the country’s prime minister–which will most likely be Sargsyan, assuming his Republican Party retains control of the parliament after the parliamentary election this coming April. I believe the technical term for this maneuver is a “Half Putin,” or possibly a “Reverse Erdoğan” since Sargsyan is unlikely to try to return to the presidency later on, as Putin did.
Since Armenia is one of the world’s stronger bets to be involved in a brand new shooting war (well, more like a reboot of an old shooting war, but whatever) in 2017 (more on that in a later one of these), this election and its fallout definitely matter.
You guys aren’t seriously going to elect the fascist, right? I mean, I know we did, but come on. Say, that looks promising. Thanks.
Uh, you guys aren’t going to elect the fascists either, right?
Ha, definitely you guys aren’t going to elect the–oh, you probably are? Well, shit.
There are no elections scheduled to take place in Israel in 2017, at least not at this point. What there is, instead, is a still wispy cloud of corruption that’s suddenly beginning to form around Prime Minister Benjamin “ethnically cleansing the West Bank shows how much I care about the Palestinians” Netanyahu:
Israeli police investigators questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for three hours at his official residence on Monday evening on suspicion of receiving illicit gifts and favors from business executives.
Mr. Netanyahu was questioned “under caution,” the police said in a statement, implying that there were grounds to suspect that Mr. Netanyahu might have committed a criminal offense. “No further details can be given at this stage,” the statement added.
The Ministry of Justice said late Monday that Mr. Netanyahu had been questioned by investigators from Lahav 433, a police fraud investigation and prosecution unit, with the authorization of the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit.
Netanyahu has been investigated before to no effect, it should be noted. But as far as I can tell, though Netanyahu has been questioned in past cases, none of those previous investigations have involved three hour interrogations by Israeli fraud police at his residence. And Mandelblit is unquestionably a Netanyahu loyalist, so for him to allow the case to get to this point strongly suggests that there’s something serious to it. Even people who have had fairly close associations with Netanyahu in the past are talking about the possibility of an indictment here, and an indictment would almost certainly mean Netanyahu’s resignation. There are reportedly two cases being looked at. The first involves foreign and Israeli business executives possibly doing favors for the PM and his family, and the second…actually, not much has been made public about the second case except that it’s the more “serious” of the two.
It’s possible that nothing will come of this, of course, and it’s also possible that the Israeli parliament will pass a bill to make the prime minister immune from prosecution in time to save Netanyahu’s ass. But the act of declaring Netanyahu immune from prosecution will very likely be seen by some Israeli voters as tantamount to a confession, and Netanyahu’s public standing will probably take a hit. Netanyahu’s governing coalition is stable but its margins are slim and his Likud Party isn’t in such great shape in the polls, so any substantial hit could be enough to shake Israeli politics up in a major way.
Imagine if Netanyahu were to survive his eight year sour relationship with Barack Obama only to be forced to resign just as his new pal Trump becomes President of the United States. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
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