Iranian Elections: An Exercise in Civility within Restrictions

by: Negin Fazeli

I have just come back from Iran where I witnessed the pre and post presidential elections. This will not be a piece on the fairness of elections nor a judgment on the governing bodies currently ruling Iran. Let’s just say that we all agree that elections that disqualify most candidates from the get go are not fair by any international standards.

If we can, for a moment though, put this fact aside, there are many interesting things to be noted about elections in Iran. For those of us living abroad, in particular in the United States, the difference of approach is remarkable. To begin with, the actual candidates are not identified until about a month before the elections in Iran. Compare this with the never ending campaigning that goes on in the U.S. for two or more years prior to an election, thereby directing all the energy, money, and effort of the candidates toward getting elected or re-elected as the case may be; rather than toward the business of governing and putting forward legislation.  The short time period makes for a quick, but powerful and effective campaign.   I think whatever a candidate needs to say can be said over the period of one month prior to an election and there is no need for a two year drag during which many positions change.

During my stay in Iran, three debates were held between the eight vetted candidates, one of which ran four hours long.  I ended up watching bits and pieces in three locations! Interestingly enough, even though the candidates were ‘pre-qualified’, based on some pre-determined criteria, giving the impression that all of them must be made from the same cloth, their opinions ran the gamut on different topics.

Everything from the economy, poverty, internal infrastructure, and the nuclear issue was discussed and a range of views were put forward by each candidate. Arguments were heated and the difference of opinion covered a wide spectrum.  It was interesting to watch as candidates discussed everything from the lack of ‘joy’ in society to the shame that marks the nation resulting from how the last election was conducted. This was particularly interesting indeed as touchy feely subjects never had a place at the table before this election.  At some point one of the candidates said “We (referring to the country’s mighty decision makers) have to stop the practice of branding university students with stars (referring to the process of marking students with a star which in turn leads to their expulsion as a result of unwelcome political activity)”; he said, “Universities are where human beings are formed, where they become adults. It is their function to question and to protest, what other point is there?” Again, Interesting!  At some point, I was not sure I was in the Islamic Republic of Iran, watching State run TV.

Throughout the debates, political prisoners, the press, student protests, and personal freedoms were discussed just as vehemently as economic and nuclear issues. For eight hand-picked, conforming candidates, there certainly was not much conformity to be found.

In addition to the debates, which were animated but civilized for the most part, the State run TV offered free air time to each candidate to present and defend his platform. There was no need to raise money to generate airtime spots, no need to bow to big interest and its money so that a candidate could be heard. Campaign Finance Reform, what is that? Time was given to each candidate for free so that no one had to make deals with the devil to buy that time.

As far as the election itself, it began to take shape at the eleventh hour.  For two weeks prior to E-day, I asked everyone I met, the street sweeper, the cabbie, the bank teller, the businessman and the housewife the same question: who will you vote for? The resounding answer was ‘no one’; followed by something like ‘did you not see what happened last time around? One of their own will win, Velayti or Qalibaaf (both conservative candidates) of course. What is the point of voting?’ Every single person I met had decided to boycott the election to show disapproval of the process after what had taken place four years ago — what had been known as the ‘Stolen Election’.

At times, it did not seem an election was taking place except for the pleas on TV urging people to vote and exercise their right. Some print and TV spots carried the following message: ‘your vote means an affirmation of our Nation (system) and of Islam’. I don’t know if this was to encourage voting or perhaps a reverse psychology move to have people stay away!

The only two people I met who were going to vote were one eternal optimist, the kind which is hard to find in Iran these days, and one eternal pessimist who has turned pessimism into an art form. Both fall in the critical age of 30-45; both knew something we didn’t know!

We had two days to go until Election Day. Out of the eight vetted candidates two were reform seeking and the other six were hard line conservatives. The conservatives have begun to call themselves “Osulgara” — meaning “Principles Driven”. One of the conservative candidates dropped out, leaving the rest of the ‘highly principled conservatives’ in the race — one of these candidates, I was sure, would drive the country into war — an Iranian Neocon.

Then something happened that changed everything.  Mr. Khatami, a beloved yet weak, former Reformist president, asked Mr. Aref, the Stanford-educated, former head of Tehran University, to step out in favor of the only other Reformist, Mr. Rohani, so that the votes could be consolidated behind one candidate on the left (left of the very right may be more apt in Iran). Mr. Aref took himself out of the race and this was the flame that ignited what was to finally become an election just two days before people were to take to the polls. With one reformist candidate left, up against the ‘principles-driven’ ones, people started to ponder boycotting the boycott and going to the polls. Two nights before the election, finally there was action, chanting, gatherings and lots of music and celebrations in favor of Mr. Rohani’s presidency. Lethargic attitudes were slowly being taken over by a mild glimpse of hope that perhaps, just perhaps… it was possible to defeat the conservatives this time around.

Iranians went to the polls in school and places of worship all over the country and abroad. Although the numbers did not reach the over eighty percent ones like the last time, it was still a respectable election with over seventy percent of eligible voters taking part.  Friday, the weekend day in Iran, was Election Day which is a good day to go to the polls. There is nothing else to do but vote! In fact, something I have never understood in the US is why elections are held on Tuesdays when people have a hard time making it to the polling stations between work and school etc… Even though it was Friday and people were off and the polls opened at 8:00 AM, there were such long lines that the election committee extended the voting hours by two hours to accommodate all those who wished to vote.

Polls closed, the counting began and I unfortunately had to jump on a plane. By the time I reached Istanbul, the reformist candidate was in the lead. By the time I landed in Los Angeles, he had won.

What seemed an impossibility just two short weeks prior, had now become a reality. There was no run off as the conspiracy theorist had predicted. The conspiracy theory went something like this … the reformist candidate would make it to a run-off to appease the Nation and give a sense of legitimacy, but the result of the run-off election would come later putting the conservative in office and no one would be the wiser. The system will win, yet again. However, Mr. Rohani, the Reformist candidate won by over 50% of the votes, guaranteeing his place as the next president of Iran and eliminating the need for a run-off.  Conspiracy theorists couldn’t have predicted this and everyone I talked to was a conspiracy theorist – well except the one eternal optimist.

Well done Mr. Optimist!

As a side note, it is important to note that local elections were taking place at the same time and scores of women were running for city councils in every city. It will be some time before one can run for president, but this was a good start, I thought.  To my untrained eye, the month leading up to the election can be summed up as utter indifference, wild suspicion turning into cautious speculation, quiet deliberation, hesitant action and a final explosive victory.

Now only if the first step of candidate elimination could be eliminated, we could perhaps have a model for elections, short, sweet, to the point, intelligent with mass participation.



Negin Fazeli: June 2013

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