With a little bit of democracy
A tale of Iran’s
June 21, 2005
Like the socks you buy on sale, Iranian elections
are “irregular.” Fraudulent in the manner of soviet
systems or banana republics, they are not . Iranians have had twenty
seven of these elections since the outset of the Islamic Republic.
That the floor of participation in nine presidential elections
has never fallen below half of the eligible population shows that
Iranians treasure whatever democracy these flawed elections have
The election system in Iran is imperfect because
a body of rightwing judges (Council of Guardians) charged with
the Islamic character of parliamentary laws, has arrogated to itself
the right to vet the list of elective candidates and adjudicate
election fraud. With this
pincer tool the theocratic top of Iran’s political hierarchy attempts to
manipulate its democratic base.
After arbitrary vetting and before politically
motivated disqualification of ballot boxes, however, the process of voting
is fairly normal, marred only by the usual business of a few
dead people insisting
on performing their civic duties and a few hanging-chads. It must be said that
both vetting and disqualifying of ballots are used sparingly as they impose
enormous costs on the rightwing establishment.
Having detailed all these irregularities, however, one must
concede that even this imperfect democracy is better than a sham
or no democracy at all. For one thing, when the general will strongly
favors a movement it breaks all theocratic roadblocks. This happened
in landslide elections that twice favored President Khatami and
empowered the Sixth Parliament.
Even in a situation when the will
of the people is divided (as in the recent presidential elections) “getting
the votes,” or, as one of the gurus of leftist thought in
Iran once dubbed it: “begging for votes,” forces the
ruling elite to appease to populace or at least appear to “feel
their pain.” The three reform candidates, three right-wingers
and one wild-card independent (Rafsanjaani) all, in one way or
another, engaged in wooing the masses and carefully managing their
Lets start with the three rightwing candidates who had nevertheless,
to vie for the hearts and minds of all Iranians, and not only the
ten percent of the population that is their traditional constituency.
Larijani, the head of the state-run Radio and Television monopoly
ran on such contrived slogans as “modern state” and “religious
innovations.” The man who had choked the artistic and intellectual
life out of the nation chose: “fresh air” as his slogan.
Larijani finished next to last, right before the anemic reformer,
This left two contenders in the right wing ring: a
former commander of the Revolutionary Guards (Ghalibaf) and the
populist Mayor of Tehran (Ahmadinejad). These two engaged in a
duel of images. Ghalibaf recast himself as a GQ revolutionary:
a spiffy pilot in designer glasses posing next to a shiny airliner.
His posters emphasized his emerald green eyes. Ghalibaf’s
murals featured youths with painted faces and “incorrect” outfits
that he had once arrested on the street corners and barred from
Ahmadinejad, however, projected himself as the
humble servant of the people who would despise the heavy makeup
and layered glitz of the Ghalibaf campaign. Ahmadinejad won the
battle and captured the imagination of the entire conservative
camp. He managed to look authentic, relegating his rivals, Larijani
and Ghalibaf, to the ghetto of counterfeit fundamentalists.
The reform side was also highly divided. Intellectual and religious
wings of the movement slated their own candidates. The intellectual
Reform chose Moin, a ploddingly polite and incorruptible man with
the charisma of a lump of dough. Moin looked like, and in a way
was, the candidate designed by a committee. The politically savvy
reformers had chosen Moin because he was least likely to offend
the Guardian Council. Although some of his aids were betting until
mid afternoon of the Election Day that he would capture the presidency
on that very day, the unimaginative, bookish Moin could secure
only the fifth place.
The other candidate of reform was Karrubi, a shrewd and occasionally
shrewish clergyman who nominated himself and only later gained
the support of the religious reformers. During his years as the
speaker of the reform-dominated Sixth Parliament Karrubi had proven
himself a deft negotiator and a combative leader. In this election
he promised the equivalent of President Bush’s $300 tax cut:
sixty dollars per month for every Iranian.
This transparent attempt
at bribing the populace brought Karrubi heaps of contempt by economists
but the gesture won him two million rural vote and nearly catapulted
him to the run off election. When he narrowly lost to the runner
up (the right-winger Ahmadinejad) Karrubi screamed bloody murder.
In loud and indecorous (but not unjustified) tones Karrubi called
into question the Supreme Leader’s influence peddling as
well as the misuse of funds by paramilitary corps that had backed
rival. Only in a highly unpredictable and closely contested election
(no matter how imperfect) would moments like this adumbrate the
fault lines of the system that prefers to remain in the eternal
This leaves Rafsanjaani, the winner of the first round of elections
who will compete in next Friday’s run off against the rightwing
candidate Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjaani is the definitive comeback kid
of the Iranian politics. With two terms of presidency prior to
Khatami’s reign, he failed to gain a simple seat in the Sixth
Parliament due to widespread allegations of corruption and complicity
in the liquidation of dissidents.
Hence, it is a minor miracle
that Rafsanjaani has risen like a phoenix from his own ashes.
But, rise from his own ashes, this deliberative, Youdaesk old
Iranian politics has. Rafsanjaani is back because Iranian political
reform under legal and extra legal pressures of the theocratic
elites and inept leadership of Khatami had ground to a halt.
Disheartened by reform and more intently focused on the private
public life, Iranians settled for the known quality and voted
Rafsanjaani the top dog of this election.
The irony of all ironies,
who was virtually booed out of the political sphere of Iran
by the radical reformers a few years back, is now almost unanimously
supported by the reformers against Ahmadinejad. Lets hope that
Iranian lefties and reformers, as well as the small faction
tried to boycott the election are as sophisticated as their
French counterparts who voted for the conservative Chiarque only
avoid calling a fascist their president.
Ahmad Sadri is Professor and Chairman of the Department of
Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, IL, USA. See Features.
This article first appeared in Shargh newspaper in Iran.