Iran’s Presidential Runoff: The Long View

Many observers were caught off guard when the first round of Iran’s presidential election on June 17, 2005 catapulted the arch-conservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, into a runoff against former president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad’s unpredicted strong showing raises the prospect that he could win in the second round on June 24, thereby consolidating even further the control of radical conservatives over the Islamic Republic. Some commentators have warned that such a development presages “Talibanism” in Iran; others see an Ahmadinejad victory as tantamount to a military takeover of Iranian politics.

These concerns are not mere hyperbole. Mehdi Karrubi, a former speaker of Iran’s parliament and one of two first-round candidates hailing from the reformist current that dominated the legislature from 1997-2004, continues to question the validity of the first-round results, accusing the authorities and conservative-run campaigns of fraud and voter intimidation. Ahmadinejad beat out Karrubi by some 600,000 votes, out of more than 29 million total ballots cast, to stand in the runoff. Even Rafsanjani briefly threatened to pull out of the runoff in response to what he called illicit influencing of voters and “character assassination,” following the announcement by the Interior Ministry of the discovery of “millions” of flyers and DVDs attacking him personally. Such negative campaigning is prohibited by law in Iran.

In this climate, many concerned intellectuals, artists, academics, businessmen and activists have thrown their support behind Rafsanjani, who is not a democrat by any definition of the word, to forestall what they view as the threat of “fascism.” Even Rafsanjani’s erstwhile political rivals from the Participation Front Party and the Mojahedin-e Enqelab Organization, both constituent parties of the reformist front that was largely locked out of the 2004 legislative elections, have backed the wily, unprincipled ex-president. Meanwhile, a vocal rejectionist camp, both inside and outside the country, is calling for a boycott of the second round on the grounds that elections in the Islamic Republic are nothing but a means of deluding the populace into believing that they have a real say in the orientation of a regime that is otherwise completely delegitimized.

Without a doubt, an Ahmadinejad victory could be a major setback for Iran’s tortuous process of democratization. The conservative forces that he represents have been consistently exclusionary and intolerant in both rhetoric and practice. They have regularly resorted to the use of violence, up to and including committing murder, to deal with their critics. Nor can a Rafsanjani victory be seen as a positive step forward, given the human rights record of the Iranian regime from 1989-1997, when he was president.

These two gloomy scenarios are precisely why it is important to take the time to analyze the results of the first round calmly, as well as lay out the various political positions that have been taken regarding participation in the second round, in order to evaluate the long-term prospects of democratic development in Iran.

In Search of The Big Losers

Those hoping to revive the political fortunes of the defeated reformist front suffered a shock when their expectation that a large voter turnout would benefit their favorite son proved incorrect. The last polls before the June 17 round showed the most reformist-identified candidate, Mostafa Moin, running neck and neck with Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf for second place to Rafsanjani. Qalibaf, a police general, presented himself as a “soft conservative” who would maintain law and order and battle corruption. Qalibaf’s support in the polls stood at 15 percent and Moin’s at 14 percent, compared to 26 percent support for Rafsanjani. The other candidates trailed well behind. Around half the electorate — a low number by Iranian standards — were expected to vote.

On June 17, fully 61 percent of the electorate showed up at the polls. The higher turnout did not benefit the Moin campaign, but instead added to the totals of Karrubi and Ahmadinejad, the two candidates who ran on platforms of social and economic populism. Rafsanjani received 6.2 million votes (21 percent); Ahmadinejad came in second with 5.7 million (19 percent); Karrubi garnered 5 million votes (17 percent); and Qalibaf and Moin both won around 4.1 million (14 percent and 13 percent, respectively), with the two other candidates bringing up the rear. The outcry about irregularities from the Karrubi camp is credible, given the known preference of the military establishment for Ahmadinejad and given the narrow difference between their vote totals. Nevertheless, it is clear that the more significant portion of Ahmadinejad’s tally was either siphoned from other conservative candidates, like Qalibaf and former state television chief Ali Larijani, or came from formerly undecided voters who had gravitated toward the Tehran mayor as he railed against corruption and ostentation.

Why did Moin not perform according to expectations? His campaign, responding to popular discontent with the reformists’ unfulfilled promise, sought to convince the voters that reformists were now pursuing a more careful strategy to secure the institutionalization of democracy in Iran. The parliamentary reformists, along with their ally President Mohammad Khatami, had been thwarted multiple times by the encroachments of the Guardian Council, an unelected clerical body charged with judging the compatibility of acts of Parliament with the tenets of the Islamic Revolution. Moin said he would find ways to ward off these interventions and those of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the revolution’s Supreme Leader. In comparison to Khatami, Moin lacks charisma. Instead of flashing personal star power, he promised to adhere to party discipline in formulating and implementing policy. Moin’s candidacy marked the first time that the lay reformers who compose his party had put forward a non-cleric as their candidate. They did so in explicit competition with their reformist allies, the Assembly of Combatant Clerics, whose candidate, Karrubi, is a cleric.

In the penultimate stages of the campaign, as Moin’s popularity failed to increase, his backers broke a political taboo and extended their hand to Iranian opposition forces that have stayed inside the country, but have always stayed outside the regime. In addition, Moin announced that his administration would contain minority Sunni Muslims as well as non-regime opposition figures. Moin’s campaign pledged to continue political liberalization and economic reforms, to struggle to free political prisoners and protect the press and civil society groups, and to defuse tensions with the United States over Iran’s nuclear program. If Moin rose in the polls during the last weeks of the campaign, it was because of these overtures to those politically marginalized by the system.

However, in the end, and possible vote rigging notwithstanding, this strategy proved unsuccessful. The majority of the population was not swayed by a platform geared to the urban, educated middle classes and short on actual evidence that Moin could deal with the crippling political deadlock, not to mention the pressing problems of unemployment and increasing poverty plaguing the working classes.

But perhaps an even bigger disappointment was reserved for those who called for a boycott of the first round as a way to rob the regime of the legitimizing effect of a high turnout. If one compares the 61 percent first-round turnout to the nearly 70 percent turnout in the 2001 contest that reelected Khatami, it appears that only an additional 10 percent of the electorate turned their backs on the election in the end. It is by no means clear how many of these were convinced to do so by the boycotters’ call.

The boycott camp maintains that elections in the Islamic Republic serve only to prolong the life of a system that is fundamentally irredeemable. Instead, some in this heterogeneous camp demand a referendum, held under international auspices, to change the constitution of the Islamic Republic. Others call for waves of civil disobedience. Whatever the merits of these positions in principle, the only visible practical strategy of this camp seems to be refusal to participate in the political system. The paradox of this strategy is that effective organizing to challenge the system can scarcely occur without the modicum of political and civil liberty that presently exists. This liberty, in turn, is a byproduct of electoral politics and the erstwhile ascendancy of reformers therein. Outside the country, the political programs of Iranian exiles are varied, but there are indications that some exile groups hope to replicate in Iran the kind of peaceful regime change that occurred in Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia. In Washington, according to the June 16 Financial Times , the International Center on Non-Violent Conflict has quietly played an influential role in shaping the discourse on this topic among exile activists, including the son of the former Shah, as well as State Department officials. However, as the first round showed once again, absent the hard work of building grassroots social and political organizations on the ground, which could then present a convincing picture of a political transition without chaos and major hardship, the Iranian public is unlikely to follow such leads.

Reading The Vote

A major lacuna in the strategic thinking of both the reformist and the rejectionist camps has been their neglect of the “political sociology” of contemporary Iran. Numerous studies, as well as patterns of voter behavior over the past eight years, have shown that the Iranian public is, by and large, cautious and pragmatic, rather than ideological. Outside major cities, elections are always hotly contested affairs. People in rural areas and provincial towns continue to participate in electoral politics in fairly large numbers simply because they realize that elected officials, whether presidents or parliamentarians, are the only channel they have (or will have) to central power. The inhabitants of this large “periphery” — who make up the majority of the population — know that the meager resources distributed to them are negotiated through such elected officials and might not arrive at all without their aid. Such realism among the population living outside major cities prevents them from risking the loss of the only “voice” they have in the power structure.

The fact that Karrubi and Ahmadinejad did so unexpectedly well in many smaller towns and provinces, as well as among urban dwellers of modest means, stems from their humble personas as well as the similarities in their messages. Both came across as unassuming men of provincial origin, who refused to call for cuts in the enormous state subsidies to industries and agriculture or to countenance further privatization of state assets. Instead, both men promised further downward redistributions of wealth. Ahmadinejad, in particular, sounded a note of egalitarianism, promising a return to the austere self-denial and revolutionary purism of the 1980s.

By contrast, the reformists surrounding Moin continued to direct their appeals to the middle classes, and openly spoke of themselves as a party of “the elite” ( nokhbegan , a term which, unfortunately, does not have the negative connotations it carries in English). Rafsanjani’s support came primarily from the same strata, and especially from entrepreneurs, technocrats, state managers and liberal economists, who appreciate his long-established commitment to neo-liberal economic policies. Both the Moin and Rafsanjani camps assumed the provincial populations would follow the lead of the urban middle classes. Ironically, however, the only mass abstention from the election in the first round seems to have come from precisely these urban middle classes. At the same time, there are worrisome indications of a rise of class hostility in the rural and provincial vote, which may indeed gather behind the obscurantist candidacy of Ahmadinejad in the second round.

Unappetizing Choice

It is ironic indeed that Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the most reviled man in Iranian politics, the very personification of corruption in the eyes of Iranians, has emerged as the great hope for safeguarding the democratic progress achieved in Iran in recent years. Without much convincing evidence, but always with firm conviction, the Iranian public, as well as outsiders like the editors of Forbes magazine, maintain that Rafsanjani and his relatives have exploited their political power to accumulate fabulous wealth and establish a grip over major sectors of the Iranian economy. Ahmadinejad, in his latest salvo, claimed that the ex-president’s family controls Iranian oil revenues, citing the fact that one of his sons is a high official in the Oil Ministry.

Rafsanjani is a consummate politician and dealmaker, a master tactician with neither scruples nor a strategy aside from playing both ends against the other, preferably with a light touch. It will be no surprise, if he wins, to see his presidential rivals accommodated as members of his cabinet: Qalibaf as interior minister, Larijani as higher education minister and Moin as minister of culture. Nevertheless, as a hard-core realist, Rafsanjani will ensure the continuation of the relative glasnost that is the basis of Iran’s long and difficult march to democracy. The greatest threats to the institutionalization of homegrown democratic forces in Iran are internal chaos and violent civil conflict, the demagogic reemergence of radical populist Islamism represented by Ahmadinejad, and, ever present in the background, the specter of military confrontation with the Bush administration. The least that can be said for Rafsanjani is that, as a politician, he may be capable of staving off these threats.

The conservatives, at least for now, have refrained from using violent force, and have shown that, some cheating aside, they can put together a formidable political machine to mobilize voter support in election after election. But to date, this conservative establishment has not once managed to muster more than 12 million votes, or 24 percent of the electorate. While the conservative support has a ceiling, the nebulous reformist — or, more appropriately, anti-conservative — forces are far more numerous, but also heterogeneous and volatile. Whether these voters will enter the booths en masse to ensure that a dangerously demagogic current does not gain all levers of political power in Iran is an open question. What is certain is that an outright conservative victory will severely curtail the limited freedoms of the press, civic organization and grassroots mobilization that have so drastically transformed the Iranian polity and society over the past eight years.

The June 24 runoff may well be a very close affair. The provincial bloc that voted for Karrubi may be attracted to Ahmadinejad’s radical egalitarian message, thereby augmenting the assuredly unified conservative vote. If the middle classes stay away, this will be an especially close election. In that case, dirty tricks and the kind of fraud displayed by the hardline paramilitary organizations and the Guardian Council could tip the scales in favor of Ahmadinejad.

Whither Iranian Democracy?

In the long run, the anti-conservative and democratic forces in Iran — whether secular or religious — need to match and then outmatch their opponents in creating the institutionalized political networks (such as functioning political parties, trade unions and formal civic associations) that can link them to those segments of the population who have felt unrepresented by the reformist movement. In addition, these forces need to act on their apparent realization that only an inclusive democratic front that unites these rival groups against their authoritarian and Islamist opponents will have a chance to succeed. However, and ironically, the short-term survival of the democratic movement in Iran will depend on the victory of Rafsanjani.

That said, the presidential election in Iran has also demonstrated that no single political trend enjoys hegemony — not conservative Islamists, not post-Islamist reformers, not secular democrats and not rejectionist advocates of regime change. None of these forces can hope to solve the daunting problems facing the country alone, either by using violence or by relying on external aid. Barring a disastrous foreign military intervention, the path of democracy in Iran will continue to be tortuous, but real. Would-be democrats will need to take into account the heterogeneity of the society, and the existence of an array of political forces that can barely stand each other but will need to come to a modus vivendi if they wish to live to fight another day.

Despite the unappetizing choice between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani, all is not gloom and doom. The campaign allowed for many important lessons to be learned the hard way, and these can become the new basis for a broader-based democratic front. The voting to date has made clear that the expectations of Iran’s majority of provincial, rural and urban poor people for improved economic conditions, and a greater voice in the power structure, cannot be ignored any longer. None of the extant political forces can take popular support for granted. The emergence of a broad-based coalition politics for democratic change can become the most valuable outcome of the 2005 election, no matter which candidate comes out the victor.