Archive for July 12, 2015

June 07, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey has wrapped up a crucial parliamentary election that will determine whether ruling party lawmakers can rewrite the constitution to bolster the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Polls closed Sunday afternoon, but preliminary results are not expected to start coming in for some hours. Erdogan himself was not on the ballot. Still, the election was effectively a referendum on whether to endow his office with extraordinary powers that would significantly change Turkey’s democracy and prolong his reign as the country’s most powerful politician.

Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, is expected to win significantly more votes than any opposition party but it must win a supermajority of the 550 seats in parliament to change the constitution.

All eyes will be on the results for the main Kurdish party, HDP. If it crosses a 10 percent threshold for entering parliament as a party, that would extinguish AKP’s constitutional plans. The vote comes amid high tensions after bombings Friday during a HDP rally killed 2 people and wounded scores. On Sunday, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said a suspect had been detained in the case, but provided no other details.

More than 53 million voters in Turkey and abroad are eligible to choose the deputies to the Grand National Assembly. If the ruling AKP wins a majority of 330 seats, it could call for a national referendum to change the constitution. If the party captures 367 seats, it could vote in a change without a referendum.

After casting his vote, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas called for peace after what he saw as an “onerous and a troubled campaign.” Aside from the constitutional issues, the election could have a major impact on the peace process to end decades of insurgency by Kurdish militants in Turkey.

Scuffles between rival party supporters were reported in at least two provinces Sunday, including one in Sanliurfa which injured 15 people. Erdogan has been Turkey’s dominant politician since his party swept into power in 2002 — becoming prime minister in 2003 and leading his party to two overwhelming parliamentary election victories. In a gamble, last year he decided to run for president, banking that his party could later bolster his powers.

Under the current constitution, Erdogan is meant to stay above the political fray as president. But he has been campaigning vociferously, drawing complaints from the opposition that he is ignoring the constitution.

As he cast his vote Sunday, Erdogan praised the election as an indication of the strength of democracy in Turkey. “This strong democracy will be confirmed with the will of our people and extend the trust we have in our future,” Erdogan said.

Early in the campaign, he called on voters to give AKP 400 deputies, but a slim majority for the ruling party is a more likely result. That could leave Erdogan stranded in the presidential palace without the powers he has long sought.

A narrow win by the AKP, however, could be the best result for Davutoglu, who would lose power if Erdogan has his way. Opposition parties, including the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and the nationalist MHP party looked stronger in a recent poll, campaigning on positive economic agendas.

Hakan Kiziltan, an Ankara resident, expressed optimism after voting Sunday. “May it be good for our people and our country,” he said. “I believe our country will go even further after these elections.”

May 31, 2015

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish authorities have deployed thousands of police to block entry into Istanbul’s Gezi Park, barring access to a few hundred demonstrators trying to mark the second anniversary of the start of the nationwide anti-government protests in 2013.

Holding carnations and shouting slogans, the protesters tried Sunday to march to Istanbul’s main square where Gezi is located, but were blocked by police. They dispersed after delivering speeches and leaving carnations on a street leading to the square.

Hundreds of thousands of Turks took to the streets denouncing the government’s increasingly autocratic leadership in May and June 2013. The protests were sparked by opposition to government plans to uproot trees at Gezi to build a shopping center. Thousands were wounded and at least 12 people died in protests that year.

June 21, 2015

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanians on Sunday voted in local municipal elections, a key step in their efforts to launch membership negotiations with the European Union.

Last year, Albania was granted EU candidate status and now Tirana is expecting to get approval for the launch of full membership negotiations. Besides tangible results in the rule of law, the justice system and the fight against crime and corruption, Brussels also expects free and fair elections in post-communist Albania, where they have always suffered from violence or manipulation and political squabbling.

“The June 21 election test, almost a year after getting the country’s candidate status, should serve as our main investment in launching the membership negotiations with the European Union,” President Bujar Nishani said Friday in a call for participation.

About 3.4 million voters were eligible to cast their ballots in the country’s seventh local elections since the fall of communism in 1990 to elect 61 mayors and 1,595 municipal counsellors. There were no immediate official figures on the turnout.

Voting started Sunday at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and ended at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT), although some stations remained open after that to allow people waiting in line to cast their ballots. About 6,000 police officers were deployed near 5,300 polling stations and hundreds of army special troops were guarding government buildings and embassies. Initial reports suggested the voting had proceeded peacefully in most places with only a few minor acts of violence.

Officials from the governing Socialists and the opposition Democrats called on counting commissioners to be careful and fair in the process, which has previously been marred by differences and efforts of manipulation.

The focus is on the mayor of Tirana, where a 37-party coalition led by Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialists has nominated former social affairs minister Erion Veliaj, while the 15-party opposition led by outgoing Mayor Lulzim Basha’s Democrats tapped parliamentarian Halim Kosova as its candidate.

Following the polls, the country will change its local governance to only 61 town halls instead of the previous 373 town halls and communes in an effort to cut expenses and increase the independence of local authorities.

Around 200 international observers are monitoring the polls. They will report preliminary findings on Monday. The law says results must be revealed no later than three days after the vote.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Head of Ennahda movement Sheikh Rashid Al-Ghannouchi has expressed concern with attempts by some to return to a program of trying to “annihilate” Islamists in Tunisia, Quds Press reported on Friday.

Al-Ghannouchi downplayed these attempts, saying they are unlikely to succeed. “There are weak attempts, but they are not feasible because the collective voice in Tunis is not to exploit and benefit from calamities; instead the prevailing voice is that of unity and fighting terror,” he said.

Meanwhile, he called for all Tunisians to unite in fighting terror and regain the confidence of the Europeans in their country.

He reiterated that the aggression which targeted Tunis aimed to destroy the state, the revolution, rights and freedoms, democracy, as well as the image of Islam.

Al-Ghannouchi stressed that Tunis is facing an “existential danger” which requires every Tunisian to become involved in the war to defend the country, the revolution and Islam.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


July 10, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia’s Prince Saud al-Faisal, who was the world’s longest-serving foreign minister with 40 years in the post until his retirement this year, has died, the ministry spokesman said Thursday. He was 75.

The tall, stately Prince Saud was a fixture of Mideast diplomacy, representing the oil-rich Gulf powerhouse as it wielded its influence in crisis after crisis shaking the region — from Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, through multiple rounds of Arab-Israeli peace efforts, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of neighboring Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War, al-Qaida’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to the current day’s tensions between the Arab Gulf bloc and Iran, Arab Spring uprisings, Syria’s civil war and the spread of Islamic State group extremists.

The country’s government-owned media announced Saud’s death after midnight Friday. The official announcement, carried by state television, did not state the cause of death. The prince had undergone multiple surgeries in recent years for his back, which left him walking with a cane, and for other ailments.

Word of his passing first emerged late Thursday when Saudi Foreign Ministry spokesman, Osama Nugali, wrote on his official Twitter feed, “The eye tears, the heart saddens. We all are saddened to be separated from you.”

The prince, who took the ministry post in 1975, retired on April 29, citing health reasons. At the time, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hailed him, saying he “has not just been the planet’s longest-serving Foreign Minister but also among the wisest.” He was succeeded in the post by Adel al-Jubeir, who before that was Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington.

Kerry expressed his condolences to Saud’s family and friends, King Salman and to the people of Saudi Arabia, saying the prince was “a man of vast experience, personal warmth, great dignity, and keen insights who served his country loyally and well.”

“I personally admired him greatly, valued his friendship, and appreciated his wise counsel,” Kerry added. “His legacy as a statesman and diplomat will not be forgotten.” President Barack Obama said in a statement that generations of U.S. leaders and diplomats benefited from Saud’s “thoughtful perspective, charisma and poise, and diplomatic skill.”

Saud was the son of Saudi Arabia’s third king, Faisal, who ruled from 1964 until he was assassinated in 1975. Prince Saud, who had a bachelor’s degree in economics from Princeton University and had been deputy petroleum minister, was soon after appointed to the foreign minister post, which his father had held during his reign. The young prince, fluent in English and French, brought an air of sophistication and charisma, whether in crisp suits or in the traditional Saudi white robe and gold-trimmed black cloak with a red-checkered head piece. Soft spoken, he often showed a sense of humor not often seen among the publicly stolid royal family.

He was father to six children, three boys and three girls. King Salman’s son, Prince Sultan, is married to one of Prince Saud’s daughters. The late prince’s brothers are also known as highly educated and eloquent, with Prince Khaled al-Faisal serving as the governor of Mecca and another brother, Prince Turki al-Faisal, heading a research center and think tank after decades as the head of intelligence.

Mamoun Fandy, author of Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, said his death marks the end of an era as the elder royals move to shift power to younger princes. “The history of Saudi foreign policy is al-Faisal, both him and his father,” he said. “It’s how the world knew Saudi Arabia, through al-Faisal.”

Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi said the world lost a “noble” diplomat who defended his nation with “courage and valor.” Iyad Madani, the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s largest body of Muslim nations, said the prince fought major political battles in his career for the sake of his country and for the Muslim world.

He led Saudi diplomacy over a period that saw the kingdom — once better known for behind-the-scenes influence — become more overt in throwing its weight in affairs across the Mideast. Tending to the alliance with the United States was a major part of that. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait brought U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia, a deployment that raised some opposition among Saudis.

Al-Faisal played a key role in patching ties with the United States which were strained by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. He insisted in public speeches that Islam and Muslims are not the enemy, saying in 2004 in an address at the European Policy Center in Brussels: “You just cannot dismiss a 1,400-year-old culture and civilization by stigmatizing it as merely a hatchery for terrorism.”

After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq ousted Saddam, Saudi Arabia often bristled over the consequences — the rise of Shiite power in Baghdad and the growing influence there of Shiite-led Iran, the kingdom’s top rival. Saud “had to explain to the world how they hated Saddam Hussein, but objected handing over Iraq to Iran,” Fandy said.

Al-Faisal was not seen as a hawk toward Iran, but was part of the leadership that saw the Shiite powerhouse across the Gulf waters as the main challenge to Sunni-led Saudi Arabia. Last year, he invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to visit Saudi Arabia, but later accused Iran of fomenting unrest throughout the Middle East. Zarif ended up visiting shortly after King Abdullah’s death in late January and expressed hopes of greater co-operation with the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

Among the stories shared about the prince by Western diplomats in Riyadh is that at one point, he had approached King Abdullah to ask to retire as foreign minister, saying he was tired and needed to rest. The monarch declined his request, telling him, “So I should be the only one to die in office?”

In one of his last public appearances as foreign minister in March, he helped rally efforts for Saudi Arabia to lead a coalition of Arab countries to bomb Yemen’s Shiite rebels who had taken over the capital there. “We are not warmongers, but if the drums of war call for it, we are prepared,” Saud said in a speech to the kingdom’s consultative Shura Council, arguing that Yemen was integral to overall Gulf security and that Iran was behind the rebels.

__ Keath reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Ellen Knickmeyer in San Francisco contributed to this report.

June 20, 2015

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — A top Bahraini opposition leader was released Friday after more than four years in prison for his role in protests calling for reform in the Gulf kingdom.

The WAAD (National Democratic Action Society) group confirmed on its official Twitter account that Ibrahim Sharif was released Friday. Sharif was sentenced in June 2011 to five years in prison for plotting to overthrow Bahrain’s 200-year-old monarchy.

Sharif was one of 20 prominent pro-democracy activists calling for political reforms who were convicted by a military-led tribunal after the government cracked down on them. He was leading WAAD at the time of his arrest in March 2011.

Bahrain’s majority Shiites, inspired by Arab Spring protests elsewhere, launched an uprising seeking to limit the wide-ranging powers of the ruling Sunni dynasty. The strategic island nation is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

Brian Dooley, a program director with Human Rights First, applauded the release. “More than four years after President Obama called for the release of peaceful opposition leaders in Bahrain Ebrahim Sharif is finally out,” he said in a statement. “This is a long overdue move, and he should never have been jailed in the first place.”