Iranians Vote for Hope and a Change of Course

by Farideh Farhi

via IPS News

Iran’s June 14 presidential election results, announced the day after, was nothing less than a political earthquake.

The centrist Hassan Rowhani’s win was ruled out when Iran’s vetting body, the Guardian Council, qualified him as one of the eight candidates on May 21.

Furthermore, a first-round win by anyone in a crowded competition was not foreseen by any pre-election polling.

Until a couple of weeks ago, conventional wisdom held that only a conservative candidate anointed by Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could win.

Few expected the election of a self-identified independent and moderate who was not well-known outside of Tehran.

And few thought participation rates of close to 73 percent were in the cards.

The expected range was around 60 to 65 percent, in favor of the conservative candidates who benefit from a solid and stable base of support that always comes out to vote.

But the move, a few days before the election by reformists and centrists — guided by two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — to join forces and align behind the centrist Rowhani proved successful and promises significant changes in the management and top layers of Iran’s various ministries and provincial offices.

Rowhani has also promised a shift towards a more conciliatory foreign policy and less securitized domestic political environment.

The centrist-reformist alliance occurred when, in a calculated action earlier this week, the reformist candidate Mohammadreza Aref withdrew his candidacy in favor of Rowhani, whose campaign slogan was one of moderation and prudence.

But the strong support for Rowhani, underwriting his first-round win, was made possible by an unexpected surge in voter turnout.

A good part of the electorate, disappointed by Iran’s contested 2009 election and the crackdown that followed, had become skeptical of the electoral process and whether their vote would really be counted.

They also questioned whether the holder of any elected office now could make a difference in the direction of the country.

Low voter turnout was the expectation. But with the centrist-reformist alliance, the mood of the country changed.

Serious debate began everywhere, including in homes, streets, shops and electronic media, about whether to vote or not.

As more and more people became convinced, Rowhani’s chances increased. Hope overcame skepticism and cynicism.

The case for voting centered on the argument that the most important democratic institution of the Islamic Republic — the electoral process — should not be abandoned easily out of the fear that it will be manipulated by non-elective institutions.

Abandoning the field was tantamount to premature surrender, it was argued.

Reformist newspaper editorials also articulated the fear that a continuation of Iran’s current policies may lead the country into war and instability.

Syria, in particular, played an important role as the Iranian public watched a peaceful protest for change in that country turn into a violent civil war through the intransigence of Bashar al-Assad’s government and external meddling.

The hope that the Iranian electoral system could still be utilized to register a desire for change was a significant motivation for voters.

Beyond the choice of Iran’s president, the conduct of this election should be considered an affirmation of a key institution of the Islamic Republic that had become tainted when the 2009 results were questioned by a large part of the voting public.

The election was conducted peacefully and without any serious complaints regarding the process.

Unlike the previous election, when the results were announced hurriedly on the night of the election, the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of conducting the election with over 60,000 voting stations throughout the country, chose to take its time to reveal the results piecemeal.

Other key individual winners of this election, beyond Rowhani, are undoubtedly former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami who proved they can lead and convince their supporters to vote for their preferred candidate.

Khatami in particular had to rally reformers behind a centrist candidate who, until this election, had not said much about many reformist concerns, including the incarceration of their key leaders, Mir Hossein Mussavi, his spouse Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karrubi.

Khatami’s task was made easier when Rowhani also began criticizing the securitized environment of the past few years and the arrests of journalists, civil society activists and even former government officials.

Meanwhile, Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose own candidacy was rejected by the Guardian Council, sees his call for moderation and political reconciliation confirmed by Rowhani’s win.

He rightly sensed that, despite the country’s huge economic problems — caused by bad management and the ferocious US-led sanctions regime imposed on Iran — voters understood the importance of political change in bringing about economic recovery.

Conservatives, on the other hand, proved rather inept at understanding the mood of the country.

They failed in their attempt to unify behind one candidate and ended up stealing votes from each other instead.

The biggest losers of all were the hardline conservatives, whose candidate Saeed Jalili ran on a platform that mostly emphasized resistance against Western powers and a reinvigoration of conservative Islamic values.

Although he was initially believed to be the the favored candidate due to the presumed support he had from Khamenei, he ended up placing third, with only 11.4 percent of the vote, behind the more moderate conservative mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.

The hardliners loss did not, however, result from a purge. It is noteworthy that other candidates besides Rowhani received approximately 49 percent of the vote overall.

While this election did not signal the hardliners’ disappearance, it did showcase the diversity and differentiation of the Iranian public.

Rowhani, as a centrist candidate in alliance with the reformists, will still be a president who will need to negotiate with the conservative-controlled parliament, Guardian Council and other key institutions such as the Judiciary, various security organizations and the office of Leader Ali Khamenei, which also continues to be controlled by conservatives.

Rowhani’s mandate gives him a strong position but not one that is outside the political frames of the Islamic Republic.

He will have to negotiate between the demands of many of his supporters who will be pushing for a faster rate of change and those who want to retain the status quo.

His slogan of moderation and prudence sets the right tone for a country wracked by 8 years of polarized and erratic politics.

But Rowhani’s promises constitute a tall order.

Whether he will be able to lower political tensions, help release political prisoners, reverse the economic downturn and ease the sanctions regime through negotiations with the United States remains to be seen.

But Iran’s voters just showed they still believe the elected office of the president matters and expect the person occupying that office to play a vital role in guiding the country in a different direction.

Photo Credit: Mohammad Ali Shabani

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.