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By Richard Lim, Peace and Security Issue Analyst

“An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic.”
– Thomas Jefferson

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the
average voter.” – Winston Churchill

Every two years the American people are barraged ad nauseum with ads, fliers, mailers, phone calls, and bumper stickers reminding them to get out the vote. Vote because this election is the most important in history! Vote because your children depend on it!

Indeed, voting is an indispensible element of a republic. For those who have emigrated from nations where sham elections are the rule rather than the exception, voting means much more. It could mean a family member or a friend who went to prison because they demanded their basic rights. Too often we forget the blood, sweat, and tears that made our suffrage possible.
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By Gary Lubrat
Gary is one of AIDemocracy’s 2010-2011 Issue Analysts. Find out more about Gary below or take a look at the  Student Issue Analysts.

Students of the 21st century possess a great deal of technological power to influence future events of geopolitical relationships around the world. The explosion of Twitter, Facebook, and various blogging sites have allowed communication to reach a whole new level. Aggressive authoritarian institutions may seek to silence those using these media innovations, as evidenced by the blackout of Twitter during the controversial Iranian election in 2009.

Young people are at a pivotal crossroads that has the ability to shape the course of human events for years to come. As the world flattens and shrinks due to the use of new internet technologies, it has become even more necessary for those who are on the cutting edge of technology to use it for worldly concerns. Those who use these social networking sites may use it purely for the conventional usage of time-wasting, but it is a great tool to advance progressive idealism infused with youthful optimism that can unite rather than divide people and inform rather than obscure the truth.

There is no mystery as to why every four years the pundits on news programs continuously reference the “Youth Vote.” MTV attempts to excite this demographic through its “Rock The Vote!” campaign. To positively impact the future, those who are most involved in its direction must choose to understand how the geopolitical Islamic situation affects American influence on the world stage. Religion has been a divisive issue at times, and a unifying point of moral resolve during other times.

However, the question is not “How should religion impact political events?” The question should be “Why is Islam, above all other world religions, such an extenuating factor on the world stage?”

My name is Gary. I am the Director of Operations and Development for a non-profit high school student exchange company in the United States. I currently attend Hofstra University pursuing an MBA with a concentration on IT. As an undergraduate I studied at Stony Brook University where I received a degree in English and History. A greater understanding of the duality between the United States and Islam is necessary to move forward in the 21st century to achieve a peaceful and meaningful coexistence.

As the international community views all Israel settlements as illegal, Israelis moved in to 4 new villages only hours after the 10 month building moratorium was over. The political goal of the settlers is to occupy so much land that a shared state between Israel and Palestine will be impossible. What will happen to the peace talks between Israel and Palestine now is uncertain. The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said this Saturday that Israel now will have to choose between “peace or settlements”. Abbas now is in a tight spot, as he risks losing support with both the Palestinians and members of his own Fatah party if he continues the peace talks even though the Israelis are restarting their settlements processes. At the same time, Fatah has started a reappeasement process with Hamas, and they have appearantly agreed upon the procedures for new elections. As Israel sees Hamas as a terrorist group, and so does the EU and the U.S., it might be difficult for Abbas to have a normalized relationship with Hamas, and still negotiate peace talks with Israel.

Abbas has said that the peace talks will end if Israel restarts the building of the settlements, but the Palestinian president has called a meeting with the Arab League on October 4th to discuss the situation, and review his options. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that his intentions for peace are genuine. The big issue still remains that as long as the Israelis are building settlements in the middle of the West Bank, the more unlikely will we see a two-state solution to this conflict. And even if the peace talks will be somewhat successful, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip will still be in conflict with Israel, as Israel only recognizes Hamas as a terrorist organization.

However, the U.S. pressure to keep the peace talks going might be the extra push to the backs of both the Palestinians and the Israelis (at least to get back on track). The U.S., in the long run, is hoping that the parties will go back to negotiate the Arabian Initiative from 2001/02 that said that if Israel will withdraw from the occupied areas, there will be a total peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a meeting with the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem. Syria is essential in this, considering that Israel still occupies the Golan Heights. Even though such an agreement may seem long ahead in the future, it is a beginning.

What looked as an easy win for the Conservative alliance in the Swedish Parliamentary election, has turned out to become a possible political chaos. To win the election in Sweden your party or alliance needs to win the most mandates. The Conservatives did win the election with 172 mandates, while the Social Democrats got 157, which is more close than anticipated. However, what frightens many is that the Swedish Democrats (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweden_Democrats), a party very hostile to immigration and ties to Nazi Organizations, had their best election ever, with 5,8 % of the votes, which is 20 mandates. This means that for the Conservatives to keep their majority in the Riksdag (parliament) they may be forced to join forces with those who have the mandates they need. Officially, the Green party has turned down the offer to cooperate as they belong to the left block of the political spectrum. This is a complicated situation, because if the Green Party refuses to cooperate with the Conservative Alliance, it means that the Swedish Democrats may have some influence on Swedish politics in years to come, and thereby lay the foundations for gaining even greater strength towards the next Parliamentary election in 4 years.

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On September 18th, Afghanistan will hold its parliamentary election for the lower house, Wolesi Jirga. 2,577 candiates, 405 of them women, have filed to run for the 249 seats. The election was originally set to be held in May, but was postponed due to “lack of security and logistics.” Different factions within the Taliban have threatened to kill those participating in the election, and as last year, they have proclaimed a boycott.  At worst, 15 % of the polling places won’t be open on election day, due to the threats, election officials in Kabul say.

The presidential election of 2009 was a catastrophe.  There were large-scale frauds, low voter turnout, threats from a variety of groups and a general lack of security. The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan collected evidence of election fraud, and Afghans working for the BBC found out there was voting cards being sold on the black market on a massive scale. Hundreds of polling stations in areas where governmental influence is low were shut down the day before the election, allegedly because of the fear of insurgent attacks. There is also evidence that bribes were being offered in order to buy significant amount of votes, to influence the outcome of the election. Voting irregularities occurred as well, especially in the southern province of Helmand, where the numbers of voters in one poll suddenly tripled even though the guards at the poll station had seen very little activity that day.

Western officials have been very clear on the fact that there had been election corruption and that people did not show up because of the lack of security and a sense of apathy towards the government. The Parliamentary election in just a few days faces the same issues the presidential election experienced one year ago. This is a massive test for the security forces in Afghanistan, and for the government officials. If they manage to keep corruption, fraud and violence to a minimum we might see a change of atmosphere in the country, and a new attitude toward the decision makers. However, increased violence and heavy fighting the past year does not leave hopes that high, at least not mine.

-Hakon Kristinsen Moe, Global Peace and Security Program Intern

The election of Porfirio Lobo on November 29 represents a giant leap backwards for Honduras and Latin America as a whole. After months of protracted negotiations, the U.S. government suddenly threw its weight behind the illegitimate coup government of Roberto Micheletti and supported elections under its authority. The shameful episode damages Obama’s credibility in Latin America and sets a dangerous precedent in a region with a chequered past.

Last June, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted from power at gunpoint by armed soldiers, and the speaker of Congress Roberto Micheletti was installed as interim leader. Zelaya’s “crime” was to plan a public consultation on moves to change the constitution. The coup was roundly condemned by world leaders, with President Obama calling the coup “illegal”. Yet five months later, the U.S. government has changed tack, backing coup-sponsored elections and grossly damaging the democratic process in Latin America.

The role of the U.S. in the Honduras crisis has been pivotal since day one. Obama’s initial condemnation of the coup was welcomed by many pundits, especially since the U.S. has a history of backing right-wing coups in Latin America. The Obama administration’s early strategy focused on returning President Zelaya to power and restoring democracy, while the coup government’s strategy was to hold onto power until it held elections for a new president. The U.S. responded by cutting aid to Honduras and threatened the military-backed regime with continued international isolation until it negotiated a plan that would enable Zelaya to return to the presidency.

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Yesterday the New York Times published an interesting Op-Ed piece by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, critiquing the Obama administration efforts to engage Iran.  The authors’ primary complaint is thar President Obama and his staff have not done enough to distance their policy from that of the previous administration and to work directly with with top Iranian officials.  They have some compelling arguments; such as their suggestion that no Iranian officials will be inclined to take American diplomatic moves seriously until Obama has publicly declared his intention to “cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic”.

The Leveretts’ article, however, may be poorly timed.  I too hope that the Obama administration will make direct engagement with Iran one of its top priorities.  But I think that the decision to take it slow until after the June 12th presidential elections is a good one.  The recent release of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi demonstrates that there are deep divisions among Iranian political elites, particularly about how they should interact with America.  The four candidates in the presidential race have each made relations with America and the West a key issue in their platforms. Ahmadinejahd has been under attack from all sides for his handling of foreign policy and the regime’s recent decision to block Facebook demonstrates just how threatened his administration feels by reformist opponents.

The office of the President may not hold a lot of real political power in Iran; that is reserved for the Supreme Leader.  But if there is anything that the presidency of Mohmood Ahmadinejahd has shown us, it is that the president can be an important figure in setting the agenda and influencing Iranian political culture.  On June 12th Iranian voters will vote for the candidate who best represents their hopes for Iran’s future.  By waiting until the new Iranian administration is in power to pursue direct engagement, the Obama administration is both denying the current administration to opportunity to claim a foreign relations victory and giving itself time to prepare strategies to reflect the possible outcomes of the election.

Hopefully both Iranian voters and President Obama will do their part to work for direct and meaningful diplomacy.

With just over a month to go until the Iranian Presidential election the election process is heating up.  475 people have registered as official candidates, including 42 women.  Here are two of the most interesting contenders:

  • Rafat Bayat is the most well-known women to have submitted her candidacy.  She is a former member of the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament who had attempted to run in the last presidential election in 2005.  She has been a critic of the Ahmadinejahd administration’s economic policies and has stated that if elected her first deputy will be a woman.
  • Koresh Mouzuni is believed to be the youngest candidate at twelve years old.  He appears to be a fan of current president Mahmood Ahmadinejahd and has said that if elected he will appoint him as his first deputy.  When asked about his stance towards Israel he answered, “I will buy Hawaii, Obama’s birthplace, from the United States and lease it to Israelis who will go live there – so that they don’t kill the children in Gaza.”  So does this mean that he supports talks with America without preconditions?

The Guardian Council will take the list of 475 potential candidates and narrow it down it a handful of top contenders, with the announcement of their selections expected to come on May 22nd.  The top candidates are expected to include two conservatives: incumbent President Mahmood Ahmadinejahd and former head of the Revolutionary Guard Mohsen Rezai, and two reformists: former speaker of Parliament Mehdi Karroubi and former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Rezai, Karroubi, Mousavi have each criticized Ahmadinejahd’s administration, especially his handling of the economy.  Fellow conservative Mohsen Rezai has said that Ahmadinejahd “would drag the country over a cliff” if reelected, while Mehdi Karroubi has declared Ahmadinejahd’s statements about Israel to be undermining Iran’s international credibility.

It will be interesting to see whether or not having two candidates from each the reformist and the conservative camps will play out.  Will one reformist candidate drop out of the race in order to avoid splitting the reformist vote?  Rezai has said that he will work with reformers- will he make a deal to form a coalition government?  Will the Guardian Council disqualify any of these candidates in an effort to support Ahmadinejahd?  We’ll have to wait to find out.

Mohammad Khatami’s decision to withdraw from the upcoming Iranian presidential election, announced this past week, has shaken up the field for the June 12th poll.  The announcement was not entirely unexpected- Khatami had previously implied that he would drop from the race if another strong reformist candidate decided to run- and Khatami even went so far as to endorse another reformist, Mirhossein Mousavi, as he announced his own withdrawal.

Mousavi is relatively unknown outside of Iran but has some strong reformist credentials.  He served as Iran’s Prime Minister from 1980 to 1988 and many Iranians recall his strong leadership and economic management during the Iran-Iraq War.  These economic skills could be very appealing to Iranian voters, who are feeling the pressure of the economic crisis and who increasingly blame President Mahmood Ahmadinejahd for high levels of unemployment and inflation.

Some critics have attacked Mousavi for his lack of political experience (he hasn’t held a political office in twenty years).  Others note that it is precisely this lack of experience that makes him a stronger candidate than Khatami.  Alex Vatanka of Jane’s Defense publications argues that many Iranians became disillusioned with Khatami after his years in power produced fewer and less drastic reforms than they had hoped.  Mousavi may be able to convince those disillusioned voters that he will be more effective.

Mousavi, however, is not the only reformist  intending to challenge Ahmadinejahd in June.  Mehdi Karroubi is a moderate cleric and reformist who has been a strong ally of Khatami and who served as Speaker of the Majilis (Iranian Parliament) from 1989 to 1992.

It may appear that Mousavi and Karroubi could be gearing up for a Clinton-Obama-style struggle for reformist votes.  However some anaylsts have noted that these two candidates could help each other by difusing conservative attacks and sharing the burden of hard-line opposition.  Aboutorab Fazel suggests cooperation and coordination among the reformists will lead one candidate to drop out in order to consolidate reformist support even “just weeks before the June election”.

With two strong candidates the reformists appear to be in a strong position to keep Ahmadinjahd and other conservatives on their toes in the coming weeks.  Nevertheless, the conservatives on the Guardian Council still have many opportunities to block reformist candidates in both presidential and parliamentary elections.  As the election draws closer we will have to wait and see how Mousavi and Karroubi counter the waves of criticism and opposition that will soon be coming their way.

Radio Free Europe has an interesting article this week on how Iranian internet censorship authorities, among the most restrictive in the world, have recently decided to unblock Facebook.  Iranian internet users had been blocked from using Facebook in 2006 but the decision was reversed this past February, to the surprise and confusion of many internet activists and users.

Christophe Ginist of Internet Without Borders hypothesizes that the recent changes may be an attempt to win support for the regime as the June presidential election approaches.  He states, “During election periods, as in the case of Iran, it allows the government to give the impression that it is offering more freedom… But that’s absolutely not what’s happening, because the first thing that happens following an opening is that filters and controls are established. It means that they reopen Facebook when they have the possibility to put people in place who can control it.”

Ginist raises a good point: the internet is a double edged sword.  While it allows activists and dissidents the opportunity to communicate and share ideas, it also allows hard-liners and government supporters to do the same thing. Each side has the opportunity to solidify and mobilize its supporters.  Ebrahim Nabavi, a Belgium-based satirist, put it best: “It’s not like we’re the only people who need Facebook to get in touch with people inside Iran… Mesbah Yazdi [an ultra hard-line ayatollah said to be the spiritual mentor of current President Mahmud Ahmadinejad] also needs the Internet to be in touch with the supporters of the kind of Islam he preaches in Italy, Britain, and elsewhere.”

Newsweek notes, “Iranian cyberspace has begun to mirror the complexity of contemporary Iranian politics, with different factions—religious, paramilitary and secular—competing for influence”.  As the presidential election approaches and continues to heat up, it is certain that all of the excitement of election politics – the debates, the mud-slinging, etc- will overflow into cyberspace as well.  If John McCain is any indicator of politicians on Twitter, then I would love to see Ahmadinejahd’s tweets.

As has been previously discussed on this blog, Facebook and other social networking site can be enormously helpful tools for activists since they allow us to share information with a wide audience quickly.  This viral method of communication played a vital role in our own recent Presidential election, and I am excited to see how it will affect the political climate in Iran as June approaches.

Also, I wish that someone had captured some video of Ahmadinejahd having a shoe thrown at him last week and had posted it on Youtube.  That would be worth tweeting about.

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