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With a little bit of democracy
A tale of Iran’s ninth presidency


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 to offer.

The election system in Iran is imperfect because a body of rightwing judges (Council of Guardians) charged with checking 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 democracy 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 public impressions.

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, Mehalizadeh.

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 soccer stadiums.

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 his 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 shadows.

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 man of 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 rather than public life, Iranians settled for the known quality and voted Rafsanjaani the top dog of this election.

The irony of all ironies, Rafsanjaani 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 that tried to boycott the election are as sophisticated as their French counterparts who voted for the conservative Chiarque only to 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. See homepage. This article first appeared in Shargh newspaper in Iran.

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