Sunday, July 10, 2005

* Iran's Presidential Elections...

Iran’s Elections: The Miracle of the Ballot Boxes

Ali-Asghar Kazemi
July 2005


Iran is one of the few lands of legends and wonders where miracles still happen. Recent presidential elections outcome proved once again this amazing phenomenon. In fact, miracles occur every day in this realm and the Islamic regime owes its endurance to this occurrence. We Orientals usually love myths, unexpected events, legends, and fairy tales. As Ernst Cassirer said in his The Myth of the State, the major help of myths and legends is to make our despair and bitterness of life more bearable. The long history of Iran is full of such controversies and paradoxes which rational minds are incapable to explain.

The vicissitudes of the last century in contemporary Iran’s political scene, including the 1979 revolution and the collapse of the Shah’s regime were nothing but pure miracles. To that, one should add the war with Iraq, which somehow guaranteed the survival of the Islamic regime. The emergence of the reformist front during the last decade also miraculously served to protect it from various international strains and domestic turmoil. The last miracle, which surprised not only the insiders (including the selected candidates for presidency), but also the whole world, was the outcome of the elections in June 2005. The surprise came at a time when contrary to all opinion polls and field surveys, a relatively unknown ‘conservative hardliner’ (Mahmood Ahmadi-Nejad) left behind the powerful pragmatic statesman (Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani) in a run-off race for Iran’s presidency. How this miracle really happened and what are the plausible ramifications for the region and the wider world?

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The end of reformist reign in the Iranian parliament was considered as the beginning of a series of democratic repulse in Iran’s political and social landscape. Indeed, during the progressive control in the executive and legislative branches of the government, Iran was able to prevail over many threats and calamities that could endanger the very existence of the Islamic regime. The West and the world in general hoped that the trend would ultimately lead to flourishing civil society and democratic institutions that would leave behind obsessive and fundamentalist ideas. But, the severe defeat of the reformist elements in parliamentary elections was a serious blow to the progressive ideals that turned naives’ sweet dreams to nightmare. Hence, soon after conquering the 7th Majlis in Iran, the conservatives aimed at the last head-bridge, the executive branch, in order to complete their decisive battle for absolute power control. This project has been successfully achieved on June 24, 2005.

Considering the fact that analyzing political process in Iran is rather thorny issue, one may approach the subject from a dual optimistic and pessimistic perspective.
Optimists, tend to believe that the Islamic regime has proven once again its capacity of efficient governance and has passed another test of legitimacy in the last presidential elections. They argue that the world should accept the outcome as another democratic exercise. Viewing from an optimistic lens they put forward the following arguments:
• Conventional terms used in Western political jargon such as: left, right, liberal, conservative, and so forth, hardly fit Iran’s actual socio-political setting. This is to say that we should not expect to find similar association, traits and characteristics of these expressions when used to describe certain groups or parties in present Iran,
• Iranian leaders are not much happy with these labelings, especially when used by foreign observers and political analysts. In fact, such terminology is often very misleading for outsiders who try to understand political phenomena in a rather traditional society like Iran, with not much experience in party politics and democratic exercise,
• Iranians are very unpredictable people and their voting attitude, social psychology with respect to political process do not necessarily match the standard patterns in western societies,
• Contrary to opposition groups’ propaganda inside and outside Iran for elections boycotts and Western media accusations on human rights violations, nuclear aspirations, etc., the Islamic regime has still a solid popular support that guarantees its legitimacy and survival,
They claim that Iranians are fed up with the reformists’ empty slogans and pompous contentions on political development, freedom and human rights. Their demands are mainly for improvement of material well-being; and their major preoccupations are eradication of such plagues as corruption, poverty, injustice, favoritism, inflation, unemployment, narcotics and other social anomalies and disruptions.
To that end they endorsed a rather unknown, but zealous and energetic figure in line with the leader and devoted to the Islamic regime.
The pessimist critiques, including oppositions groups, contend that this presidential election was faulty right from the beginning and the whole process lacks democratic standards. Their arguments are more or less around the following issues:
• The Guardian Council’s intervention in the initial arbitrary selection of a limited number of candidates from among more than 1000 applicants was an undemocratic action, which put into doubt the whole process,
• There was a strong political will behind the election of Mr. Ahmadi-Nejad as president, despite widespread boycotts throughout the country, thus, ballots statistics have been manipulated in his favor and with a view to show high turn-out as a proof of regime’s public support and legitimacy. This contention is based on some of the claims and accusations of other defeated candidates (Mr. Karroubi in particular),
• The Islamic regime is in a state of gradual self-defeating process and is experiencing its final stage of disintegration. To circumvent this course, it will do every thing in its power, including the manipulation of elections ballots and votes.
• The last two attempts to promote non-clergy figures to high public offices such as the speaker of the parliament and the presidency are merely symbolic actions to rehabilitate the severely damaged clergy reputation,
• The Islamic regime has no legitimacy and is supported by only a small percent of the population. A referendum under the supervision of the United Nations and other international institutions is needed in order to determine the fate of the regime in a democratic manner.
Although it is premature to give a realistic assessment of the future trend of Iran’s political behavior vis-à-vis domestic, regional and international issues, in order to evaluate possible ramifications of the elections outcome, we should focus on the most critical issues that the new government will be facing right away.
First and foremost is the nuclear venture, which has created lots of concern throughout the world. At the present time Iran is in the midst of negotiations with EU3 (France, Germany and UK). The elected president has taken position on that by reaffirming Iran’s right to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. He also has assured the world that Iran will do everything to gain the confidence of the international community in a transparent manner.
With respect to the Middle East and the Palestinian question, he reiterated Iran’s previous position. As to relations with the United States, he did not commit himself and repeated the official position of the Islamic regime. On other issues that might interest the Middle East region and the world as a whole, we shall wait and see how the course of events will develop. Meanwhile, it might be worthwhile to note the following remarks with respect to the emerging new-conservatives.
Despite the apparent antipathy and hard-line attitude- not to mention the dubious background- of the president elect, one should understand that the new generation of conservatives in Iran is much more educated and pragmatic than many old-fashioned elements without academic background and adequate understanding of the modern world. New conservatives are clever enough not to swim against the current, which could endanger their very survival. Besides that, the new international environment will not allow the emergence of an irresponsible leader alike those during the cold war.
The new conservatives in Iran no longer believe in backward shift of human society, fanaticism, societal stagnation and dogmatic ideas. They speak elegantly of democracy and rule of law, moderation, accountability of office holders, national interests, efficiency, competence, good organization and management by objective. While they still believe that devotion comes first, but they now consider themselves as experts and specialists in all matters and in all domains. As a result of this transmutation, conservatives now allow themselves to use the same rhetoric and vocabulary as their reformist rivals. Yet, in one thing they are different, that is they merely seek their identity among hard-liners and thus go along with their style but not with their substance. The new president appears to be the prototype of this emerging generation.
In conclusion, it seems fair to suggest that with the attainment of all national powers by the new generation of conservatives, henceforth the Islamic regime has no other choice than to embark in gaining popular support by devoting itself to good governance and effective response to widespread demands for change, justice and fight against corruption and other social evils. In the international scene it will do its utmost effort to gain recognition and respect and might give every conceivable concession in order to remain in power. This is just an optimistic and wishful assessment of the present trends, unless another miracle changes the whole course of events.

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