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17/6/05 Paradox and Possibility in Iran’s Presidential Election by Arang Keshavarzian and Mohammad Maljoo


June 17, 2005

(Arang Keshavarzian teaches political science at Concordia University in Montreal and is an editor of Middle East Report. Mohammad Maljoo holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Tehran. They filed this essay from Tehran.)

Just a short time ago, the Iranian presidential election being held on June 17, 2005 was regarded as a non-event. The prospect that the election would advance debates over political reform and democratization appeared weak, in the shadow of the self-described defeat of Iran’s parliamentary reformist movement and the increasing skepticism of the disappointed citizenry that voting for reform-minded candidates will in fact democratize the regime. In the past two electoral seasons, the reformist camp allied with President Mohammad Khatami had fallen victim to a hardline conservative backlash and voter disenchantment. In the 2003 municipal elections, hardliners took advantage of low voter turnout to sweep the open seats on city councils, especially in the capital of Tehran and other large cities. Then, prior to the February 2004 parliamentary elections, the conservative Guardian Council disqualified over 2,000 candidates from the major reformist parties, usually on the grounds of “lack of respect for Islam.” The Guardian Council, an unelected supervisory body vested by the constitution of the Islamic Republic with the power to overturn acts of Parliament, had intervened repeatedly since 1997 to block reformist legislation. Popular faith in the parliamentary reformists’ ability to change the system eroded, to the point that the Guardians’ intervention to ban reformist candidates in 2004 did not elicit a strong reaction from Iranian civil society.

In the months leading up to the presidential election, the ninth such contest since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979, many observers expected that the conservative-engineered collapse of the reformist trend and the parallel decline of citizen support for the reformist camp would both continue. Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a “pragmatic” conservative and a cornerstone of the Islamic Republic, appeared poised to return to the presidency he held from 1989-1997. As Iranians head to the polls, however, another trajectory seems possible. The 2005 presidential campaign has ushered in a new set of challenges and possibilities for supporters of democratization in Iran that, if those supporters reach across internal divides in order to withstand authoritarian backlash, could live on past the announcement of results expected on June 18.

CANDIDATES LOOKING FOR VOTERS

In late May, the Guardian Council reviewed and vetted the over 1,000 applicants to stand for the presidency, and disqualified all those who do not subscribe to the ideological and religious tenets of the regime, as well as several who do. A mere eight candidates were cleared to run, including four hardline conservatives, the ever present Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mostafa Moin, the candidate of the Islamic Iran Participation Party, a constituent element of the reformist Second of Khordad Front that dominated parliament until 2004. (One conservative candidate, Mohsen Rezai, later withdrew.) Many still expect that Hashemi-Rafsanjani will be the eventual winner. Head of the powerful adjudicating body known as the Expediency Council since 1997, the ex-president spent a great deal of money and used the state-run media to position himself between Moin and the hardliners as the compromise candidate. His supporters argue that he is the person who can implement neo-liberal economic reforms while simultaneously managing domestic political disputes and ameliorating the long-standing conflict between post-revolutionary Iran and the United States. Hashemi-Rafsanjani used a rare interview with CNN to polish this “pragmatic” self-image, emphasizing the “fraternal relationships” he has cultivated with a variety of forces within Iran and promising “a policy of relaxation of tension” with Washington.

Having served as Khatami’s minister of science, research and technology, Moin is the candidate representing “progressive reformists” who seek to revive the project of the Second of Khordad Front. The Guardian Council initially rejected Moin’s candidacy, along with that of all women and all but seven other men. Moin told state-run radio that “people should judge whether the measure can be regarded as a coup d’etat or not.” After much public criticism and intense back-room negotiations, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution and the ultimate authority on matters of state in Iran, stepped in to force the Guardian Council to allow Moin to run.

In a surprising development, the supposedly unified hardline conservative faction, made up of men who have served in the military and intelligence apparatus and who are closely allied with the Supreme Leader, splintered into several camps likely to split the base of conservative voters. This base is variously estimated at 15-25 percent of the electorate. Foremost among the hardline candidates is Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf, until recently head of the national police force, who has gained a great deal of attention from those seeking a new face for the conservative wing of the Iranian state. Some Iranians feel that Qalibaf’s restructuring of the police force, including the recruiting of women, made the force more efficient and disciplined, if not necessarily more humane. They take the restructuring as a sign that he would make an effective president.

What was once predicted to be a sleep-inducing electoral exercise, then, was transformed into an energetic and high-stakes campaign whose outcome at least appears to be in doubt. The campaigns of Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Moin and Qalibaf, in particular, dispatched legions of young campaign workers into the streets of Tehran and other cities to hand out flyers, brochures, bumper stickers and compact discs extolling the candidate’s potential to bring Iran a brighter future. Knowing that turnout will be decisive, the candidates did not simply count on a predetermined base, but actively courted the support of the electorate, particularly among the young.

Given Iran’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent and its inflation rate of 15 percent, economic issues infused the majority of the campaign slogans, but almost all of the seven remaining candidates also spoke at length of improving governance, expanding the roles of women and ethnic and religious minorities in government, and seeking warmer US-Iranian relations. With little in the way of direct debate among candidates and little publicity for specific platforms, however, it is difficult to predict how the specific policies of these potential presidents would differ from one another. By all accounts, the election will be close, with a strong likelihood that no candidate will win the required majority in the first round. If no one wins a majority, the presidential election will go to a second round runoff for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic.

On the whole, the campaigning was peaceful, but some activities, especially those of Moin supporters, were met with hard-right vigilante violence. Particularly disturbing were a series of suspicious (but possibly unrelated) bombings in Qom, Ahvaz, Tehran and Zahedan. The perpetrators of the bombings remain unknown.

RECENT ATTEMPTS AT ACTIVISM

Adding to the excitement generated by the campaign itself has been the appearance of new forms of the grassroots activism that, in tandem with the programs of the parliamentary reformists, had generated so much expectation of change in the late 1990s. While nothing on the scale of the student demonstrations of 1999 has occurred, the presidential campaign nonetheless presented an opportunity for a diverse group of small citizen organizations to unite and voice their independent claims in unlicensed gatherings.

Since the 1979 revolution, with a fleeting exception in 1994, the Islamic Republic has banned Iranian women from entering sports stadiums, ostensibly for fear that some fans would not be “able to conform to the Islamic-human norms of our system.” But on June 8, some 30 Iranian women staged a sit-in in front of Azadi Stadium, Tehran’s largest venue for soccer matches, demanding the right to enter the stadium to support the national team. While these women were not allowed to enter the main section of the stadium, some 200 other women entered with VIP passes to cheer on the Iranian national team as it defeated Bahrain to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. Another action in assertion of women’s rights occurred on June 12, when several women’s organizations and webloggers organized a sit-in in front of the University of Tehran and invited notable poets and activists to speak in support of equal rights, including the right of women to stand for election to the presidency.

Two days later, the Iranian Writers’ Guild convened a gathering in support of Nasser Zarafshan, a prominent attorney who represented the families of intellectuals killed in suspicious serial murders in 1998-1999. Zarafshan, arrested in 2002 for “unveiling government secrets,” has staged a hunger strike in protest of the treatment of political prisoners. His protest comes after another high-profile dissident, the journalist Akbar Ganji, also reportedly went on hunger strike to demand the release of all political prisoners. The state let Ganji go to seek medical care in early June, but took him back to jail shortly thereafter. Nobel Peace Prize recipient Shirin Ebadi has been working to secure his permanent release.

Tensions were high at the stadium, the sit-in and the writers’ meeting, and there were reports of violence visited upon activists by vigilantes associated with the far religious right. However, and probably due to the campaign atmosphere and the glare of the international media, the police sought merely to contain the impact of the defiant gatherings, rather than trying to suppress them totally.

PARADOX OF PARTICIPATION

Notwithstanding these activist attempts to reclaim the public sphere, the most heated political discussions about the election in Iran took place in private. The quandary that faced many Iranians was not whom to vote for in the presidential election, but whether to vote at all. Staunch supporters of the Islamic Republic will vote solely to express support for the regime, while those who are radically opposed to the regime and never participate in formal politics long ago resolved to abstain. The many Iranians in the middle, who have participated selectively in past elections, were confronted with troubling questions about the function of their vote in the present circumstances. One the one hand, some groups inside and outside Iran advocated boycotting the elections altogether. The boycotters argued that voters’ participation acts as a mechanism to benefit the regime, which uses turnout figures to demonstrate to Iranians and the world the continued viability of the Islamic Republic. In addition, these regime opponents said, the participation of citizens who want democratization in elections protects the system from opposition groups seeking more sudden and radical changes. On the other hand, those who argued for participating in the election claimed that voting acts as a mechanism that protects the electorate from the victory of authoritarian military elites and allows meaningful, if limited reforms to take place. In the view of many Iranians, then, the act of voting will serve the dual and contradictory functions of saving the country from the worst excesses of the regime while keeping the regime firmly in place.

To address this paradox, supporters of the boycott needed to present a means of protecting citizens from the probable strengthening of restrictions upon civil society if a hardliner comes to power. At the moment, the pro-boycott groups are fragmented, and there has been little progress toward developing vehicles for political participation and debate after the collective abstention on election day. The hopes of some boycott advocates that a low turnout will kick off sustained civil disobedience and opposition to the regime seem na´ve, given the public’s preoccupation with economic concerns. Even though a successful boycott may limit the regime’s ability to claim legitimation, it may simply be a solitary show of protest that leaves people defenseless in the face of the government’s undemocratic actions.

On the other side, those advocating participation in the election needed to provide a means by which voting will not simply legitimate the regime. They still need to redefine political participation in Iran so that it means something more than periodically casting a ballot in favor of self-proclaimed reformists. In the two weeks leading up to June 17, leaders of the reformist camp seem to have acknowledged the truth in this critique of their program. In early June, the Moin campaign invited Iran’s so-called religious-nationalist forces to join them in a Front for Democracy and Human Rights, a term that is more specific than “reform.” The religious-nationalists, represented by such groups and individuals as Ibrahim Yazdi’s Liberation Movement of Iran and Ezzatollah Sahabi, were key participants in the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah, but were sidelined shortly thereafter by supporters of Khomeini’s more radical vision of the Islamic Republic as they consolidated power in the 1980s. Even during Khatami’s presidency, the religious-nationalist forces were never officially part of the reformist government. By extending its hand to Yazdi and Sahabi, the Moin campaign took a hopeful first step toward building a more pluralistic reformist movement. Moin’s backers also reached out to workers by acknowledging their rights to strike and to establish independent unions. Since the revolution, all unions have been organized under the auspices of the Labor Ministry. If it is not just a symbolic statement, this acknowledgement would signal a change in orientation by the reformist politicians toward the reality that Iranians will not simply trust them to be wiser and more just stewards of the Islamic Republic than the conservatives.

These overtures must be expanded and followed through after the election — regardless of the results — if voting in the presidential election is to be more than a rubber stamp for the status quo or a means of prolonging the painful deadlock of the past eight years. If events prove that the reformist camp is insincere in its outreach, then Iran will witness a reprise of the endless stalemates under Khatami and the act of voting on June 17 will have been fruitless.

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The winter 2004 issue of Middle East Report, “Iran’s Clouded Horizons,” explored in depth the reasons for the decline of Iran’s parliamentary reformists and popular skepticism about their effectiveness. Order the issue or subscribe to Middle East Report via a secure server at MERIP’s home page: www.merip.org

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