Monday, June 27, 2005

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Interpreting Iran's election

The Economist asks the questions on many people's minds following Iran's presidential elections:

WAS it a backlash by Iranís devoutly Muslim poor against a corrupt elite? Or was it a massive fraud perpetrated on the people by the hardline clerics? Perhaps it was a bit of both. Whatever the case, the margin of victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the second round of Iranís presidential election, on Friday June 24th, was striking. Mr Ahmadinejad, the mayor of the capital, Tehran, and a hardline religious conservative, garnered around 62% of the vote, despite having gone almost unnoticed in the field of seven candidates who had contested the first round of voting, a week earlier.

However, Gordon Robison has an op-ed in the Beirut Daily Star suggesting that the western media fell down on the job in covering the Iranian elections:

So Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is not Iran's new president. That result must come as a particular surprise to anyone who tried to follow the campaign by light of the Western media.

As recently as last Thursday - the day before the run-off vote between Rafsanjani and his rival, Tehran mayor Mahmood Ahmadinejad - reputable polls gave the latter a clear lead. Yet headlines in the International Herald Tribune continued to describe Rafsanjani as the "front-runner." In the run-up to the first round of voting on June 17, his campaign was the focus of most election coverage in the Western media. CNN's interview with Rafsanjani during the campaign treated him as a president-in-waiting.

So what happened, exactly?....

The answer may be much simpler, if no less embarrassing: Granted how little most of us outsiders know about the politics of the Islamic Republic, it was probably just easiest to focus on Rafsanjani because he, alone among the candidates, was a familiar figure to Western journalists....

Prior to the election [reformer Mustafa] Moin was often seen in the West as Rafsanjani's main competition. The assumption in that narrative was that Rafsanjani represented the conservative old guard. Moin, a former cabinet minister who was initially barred from standing by Iran's Council of Guardians (the body that approves potential candidates for Parliament and the presidency), was seen as the obvious successor to Khatami. That might have been true, but it ignored the fact that there is more than one type of "reform." Reform can mean loosening restrictions on how people dress and behave in public and private. But it can also mean tackling corruption and cronyism - which was the vein of popular anger into which Ahmadinejad tapped.

Well, to be fair, some of the western media had already figured some of this out:

In truth, so much of this [analysis about Iran's election] is rubbish and disinformation. The country's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, remains firmly in charge of the country -- exactly as he would have been had Mr. Rafsanjani won the other day. The pop analysis aside, the election will have no effect on Iran's weapons of mass destruction or its role in supporting terrorism.


posted by Dan on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM




Comments:

I think the Iranian elections underscore 2 points that are easily forgotten
1) There is often a great distinction between the 'elites' and the bulk of the country. In India 1 year back, everyone expected the ruling party to win because the urban elites had done well. But a lot of rural people were suffering because of droughts and they threw out the ruling party. Similarly, Iran isn't just the pro-Western, pro-reform, English speaking bloggers. Its also urban and rural poor and they spoke loudly here.
2) Economic issues may be crucial. Ahmadinejad produced a populist speech of fighting corruption and economic development and that resonated well with the poor.

If Ahmadinejad is really serious about fighting corruption and promoting economic development, and if he has the actual power to make changes (two big ifs), I suspect the rulers in Iran may not be that happy since much of the corruption and crony capitalism comes from them. [If there is one thing worse than socialist economic policies, its crony capitalism]

Finally, while the election was not as free as a Western election, it was not a Soviet style election either. I would say it was at least as free as the Lebanese elections.

posted by: erg on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



An interesting thing to observe with Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad was the way they dressed themselves during their campaigns. Rafsanjani wears the turban (perhaps a sign that he is a cleric?) and dresses conservatively, often in garbs. Ahmadinejad was always wearing a blouse and blazer, without a tie, and looked like a western politician yearning to show that he fights for the common people. He succeeded in convincing the Iranians of just that.

posted by: Harmen on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



Erg,

You nailed it. Our journalists put way too much importance on politics in their reporting at the expense of economics. Asia Times (atimes.com) nailed it where more "reputable" news outlets failed. Also, not one peep was made about the "reformist" wing and their plan to privatize national industries.

Sure the state system of Iran is grossly dysfunctional in terms of allocating resources, but the economic proposals of the "reformists" sought to empower the aristocracy further, which is already swimming in huge cash flows due to crude prices. More here where not much has changed despite the date of the piece:

The programme of the "reformers"

What is worse with the "reformers" is that their economic programme is even more severe than that of the so-called "conservatives". It is based on widespread privatisation and severe cuts in subsidies. This is in line with the demands of western imperialism, which wants the whole state structure dismantled and placed in private hands, and also wants big cuts in social spending. In fact Khatami's 2000-2005 "five-year plan" envisages privatisation and deregulation of the economy. If we consider that 60% of the Iranian economy is still state controlled and another 10-20% is in the hands of parastatal companies, then these proposals would affect large layers of the population. Khatami plans to sell off 538 state-run companies. Such food items as wheat, rice, cooking oil and sugar are also heavily subsidised.

To implement fully this programme would mean provoking a massive uprising of the whole of the population. Khatami is very aware of this fact and may explain why, in spite of his avowed "market" principles his government has been doling out $1.1 billion in the form of loans to employers who take on extra workers. This is much to the annoyance of western commentators who see this as merely keeping defunct companies alive. The problem is that the advice of the west is difficult to implement.

It was in fact the proposal to privatise the universities and introduce fees that provoked the recent student movement. What we have listed above also explains why the movement of the students has had such a wide echo among the population as a whole....

In fact, less has changed since the time of the Ayatollah

posted by: No von Mises on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



What happened to those links I provided? Hmm. Perhaps censorship on the part of UofC =)

Anyhow, Spengler has this insight on the election and domestic economics:

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/GF28Ak01.html

and other two links that disappeared in the above post:

Economics and the Ayatollah:
http://www.marxist.com/History/rev_crev_iran1.html

Reformist Program:
http://www.marxist.com/Asia/iran_student0603.html

posted by: No von Mises on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



I agree with most of the posters. Iranian university students for example, tend to be extremely vocal about their attitudes against the ruling Revolutionary Council of clerics and hard-liners in their parliament. However the Western media and amateur "Iran watchers" tend to forget that these students are the minority and the academic elite of that country.
It is the same in America. University campuses tend to generally be hotbeds of liberalism, but they are also the academic elite and so thus college educated individuals tend to be a minority in the overall population.

Iran, like the United States does indeed have a mix of "liberals" and "conservatives", but with mounting poverty and grass roots level campaigning by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I most definitely see how he could have won. Of coarse it helped a lot that most of the more progressive parties were thrown out of the election.
One thing that has not been mentioned is whether or not there were any successful campaigns for Iranian progressives to boycott the vote.
These boycotts were widely reported by several major media outlets but yet they have not been used by Iranian analysts (from what I've read) as to their possible effect on the election outcome. http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=857616&CMP=OTC-RSSFeeds0312

That coupled with a little bit of fraud here and there, and a very real high voter turnout amongst the poor, most likely had a large effect on the vote.
I definitely agree that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad portrayed himself as an average working man and dressed as such. It's very ironic indeed that he didn't wrap himself in the symbolism of clerical power with the large turbans and elaborate robes.
One report, on the BBC, mentioned that he campaigned in many of the poor rural and urban areas of Iran as well. One man they interviewed said simply, "He's one of us."

posted by: Miles Teg on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



"Finally, while the election was not as free as a Western election, it was not a Soviet style election either. I would say it was at least as free as the Lebanese elections. "

Huh? Did Lebanese elections have their candidates confined to regime supporters? I dont think if the US had an election where the only people that could run were Jery Fallwell and Raulph Reed you would consider it a free election in any respect. Its wrong to endow this farce with the slightest shred of credibility. This is exactly like a Soviet election in the only respect that counts, _it was specifically designed to give the appearance of popular consent while in fact insuring just the opposite_.

"Dont blame me, I voted for Kodos." -Homer Simpson

posted by: Mark Buehner on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]




Did Lebanese elections have their candidates confined to regime supporters?

Neither did this. There were reformist candidates running in the first round. None of them did well enough to make it into the 2nd round. And with a 60% turnout (higher than Iraq's and than most US elections), it would be hard to claim that a lot of people disgruntled by their choices stayed home.

The Lebanese election system was heavily gerrymandered with the result almost pre-decided by the ethnic quota system and the deals between different parties. The only real surprise was Aoun's success. For an indepdendent candidate, the chance of success was almost zero.


I dont think if the US had an election where the only people that could run were Jery Fallwell and Raulph Reed you would consider it a free election in any respect.

I said specifically that this was not as free as a Western election. In any case though, if you had a first round with some liberal candidates who were knocked out, and the choice came down to Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell, then yes it would be a free election.

Also, Rafsanjani was at least portraying himself as a reformist.

Finally, even in Western countries, you don't always have that much choice. At least the US has primaries, in many countries, the people who will run in particular districts are decided by party committees and you have 2 party systems. And even in the US, it can be very hard to get on the ballot (witness Nader's problems getting on the ballot) if you are not from the major parties.


Its wrong to endow this farce with the slightest shred of credibility. This is exactly like a Soviet election in the only respect that counts, _it was specifically designed to give the appearance of popular consent while in fact insuring just the opposite_.

Did Soviet era elections (except towards the very end ) have multiple candidates with different platforms to choose from ? In most cases there was only one candidate. Did they have modern day campaigning ? Did they actually have 2 rounds of elections ?

Now, obviosuly, Khamenei twisted the elections by rejecting most candidates who wanted to run. Yet, there were reformists and none did well in the first round. Indeed, if there had been more reformists, the vote would probably have been more fragmented. I doubt it would have made any difference to the results.

I would say these were as free as the Lebanese elections, considerably freer than whatever (limited) elections are being held in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. As free as the last Pakistani or Moroccan election too. [ But not as free as the last Palestinian elections].

Now nothing may well come of these elections, with the new leader turning out to be another ineffectual Khatami or even worse. But that remains to be seen. The road to truee democracy is slow and painful and Iran may actually get there before Iraq.

posted by: erg on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



"Neither did this. There were reformist candidates running in the first round."

Reformist candidates? So you can have your choice between Mullah-max and Mullah-lite, thats reform? Please. Lets be honest here, no matter the outcome all of the candidates were in Khamenei's pocket. I suppose Krushchev was a reformer compared to Stalin as well.

"And with a 60% turnout (higher than Iraq's and than most US elections), it would be hard to claim that a lot of people disgruntled by their choices stayed home."

That is the number claimed by the regime. Taking it at face value is nutty.

"For an indepdendent candidate, the chance of success was almost zero."

At least they were allowed to be heard instead of locked in a cell and beaten as true Iranian reformers are. The Lebanese certainly dont have a perfect system, but what they do have is 2 honestly differing parties.


" In any case though, if you had a first round with some liberal candidates who were knocked out, and the choice came down to Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell, then yes it would be a free election. "

THAT IS NOT WHAT HAPPENED. The 'liberal candidates' were still regime aparachicks. EVERY candidate had to be approved by the Mullahs. The so call 'reform' candidates were simply nominally less fascist than the others.

"Also, Rafsanjani was at least portraying himself as a reformist. "

Dude, anyone can call themself a reformist. Gorbachav was a reformist. That has nothing to do with whether any true semblence of democracy took place. You cant be half pregnant and you cant be half democratic. Giving the people their choice of prison commandants to be the head commandant _is not democracy_.


"Finally, even in Western countries, you don't always have that much choice."

Perhaps, but neither do you have a group of unelected thugs who actually rule the country literally deciding who to put on the ballot. And probably deciding who wins, if you are as cynical of fascists as I am.


"Did Soviet era elections (except towards the very end ) have multiple candidates with different platforms to choose from ?"

Neither did this.

"In most cases there was only one candidate. Did they have modern day campaigning ? Did they actually have 2 rounds of elections ?"

False choice. This is like Monty Hall except behind every door is the same rubber chicken. Again, if the Christian Coalition decided on the ballot and told you to pick any Republican you want, any at all, you wouldnt consider that democracy. Its an illusion and not a particularly clever one. Whats the difference if you get your choice between 1 candidate ala the Soviets and 50 if in reality they are all the ultimately the same, and beholden to the true rulers?

"Yet, there were reformists and none did well in the first round."

No, there were not. There were less strident islamo-fascists and more strident islamo-fascists, take your pick. There was no real opposition.

I know you arent doing it on purpose erq, and you are making a valiant argument, but what you are doing has a name: apologist. This is in every sense a rigged election thinly veiled to produce the illusion of choice. Giving _any_ credence to it sells out the Iranian people who by and large dont buy it any more than i do. You cant have a little democracy. This whole system stinks and it turns everything important about democracy up on its head. Dont mistake the appearance of motion for progress.


posted by: Mark Buehner on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



To the extent he really is serious about fighting corruption, this Ahmadinejad fellow is on a collision course with the senior mullahs as much as Khatami was, since they are corruption's primary beneficiaries. If he is serious, and he becomes stymied as Khatami was, that in itself could have major implications for Iran's political development.

Dan is right -- the bottom line for Western media is that they simply do not have enough sources in Iran. This is true for our government too. It is a problem that can be fixed, more easily in fact by the government than by the media.

posted by: Zathras on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]




I know you arent doing it on purpose erq, and you are making a valiant argument, but what you are doing has a name: apologist.

Indeed. That must be why I spent some time pointing out how the regime controls most power and is responsible for most corruption in Iran.



Giving _any_ credence to it sells out the Iranian people who by and large dont buy it any more than i do.

Apparently 60% of them did feel strongly enough to turn out. And you can knock the regime reported results all you like, but the fact is that even polls reported the same results, and there was huge turnout. We saw long lines of peoples turning out on TV and extended poll hours. There was probably a little fraud but no more than in most non-Western elections (trust me, I've seen elections in Pakistan and India first hand).

The credence to be given here is that the Iranian people are sick of corruption and want a better economy, and possibly value it over social reforms. That is an important lesson which you seem to be completely willing to ignore.


You cant have a little democracy. This whole system stinks and it turns everything important about democracy up on its head.


Of course you can have a little democracy. The US had nothing like a full democracy at least till women were given the right to vote and in the South, not till the 1960s with the Voting rights act. It took over 150 plus years. Ditto for England (several centuries in that case).

Similarly, in most non-western countries, progress towards democracy has often been accomplished in slow steps. The military has an inordinate amount of power in Turkey. Does that mean Turkey is not a democracy ? Of course not.


Dont mistake the appearance of motion for progress.

I'm not. I'm saying the jury is still very much out on how Ahmadinejad will govern and how much power he will have. If he is genuinely sincere about some of his reforms and has the power to carry them out (2 big ifs), that may help.

But unlike you, I don't dismiss this election simply because I don't like the result. Or is your great respect for democracy only valid when it produces governments you approve of ?

I mean, geez, if you can consider the limited elections in Saudi Arabia to be progress (which I do), then you can definitely consider this to be progress. A leader who has a strong backing may actually produce changes that are good for the Iranian people.

posted by: erg on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]




The 'liberal candidates' were still regime aparachicks. EVERY candidate had to be approved by the Mullahs. The so call 'reform' candidates were simply nominally less fascist than the others.

Really ? Mustafa Moin who ran as a reformist, was Khatami's right hand man, and tried to push a fair amount of reformist legislation through (resigning when this legislation was rejected). He was actually rejected by the Guardian COuncil before being reinstated by Khamenei.

No, he wasn't the Shirin Ebadi dissident. But he wasn't a regime figure except in the way that every politician is a regime figure. If you wanted to vote for a reformist, Moin was as good as any. The fact that he did


Dan is right -- the bottom line for Western media is that they simply do not have enough sources in Iran. This is true for our government too. It is a problem that can be fixed, more easily in fact by the government than by the media.

As far as sources go, our government's focus is on Iran's nuclear program and on links to terrorism. That priority seems correct to me. It would be nice if we had sources other than the MEK.

posted by: erg on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



"But unlike you, I don't dismiss this election simply because I don't like the result. Or is your great respect for democracy only valid when it produces governments you approve of ?"

My reaction today would be identical no matter which candidate on the original ballot was elected. The entire process is a charade.


"I mean, geez, if you can consider the limited elections in Saudi Arabia to be progress (which I do), then you can definitely consider this to be progress."

You have a point there, but the difference is SA is taking tiny incremental steps towards democracy from total dictatorship, which need to be applauded and more demanded. Iran has set up a false democracy and seems quite pleased to hold it up as an example. That cannot be tolerated.

"A leader who has a strong backing may actually produce changes that are good for the Iranian people."

Of course, but you can say that about any form of government. Napoleon did some wonderful things.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



Mustafa Moin has been a part of the Mullah machine since the 80s. Again, yeh, he might be a reformist candidate compared to the other flunkies, but so what? He's the John McCain of mullah toadies, that still is no choice at all. Which candidate was it again running on the platform of removing the Mullahs from de facto control of the government? Oh thats right, none of them.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



Apparently 60% of them did feel strongly enough to turn out.

Provided, of course, that that number has any more connection to reality than casualty counts from Baghdad Bob.

posted by: Achillea on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



Someday we all hope to see Iranians be able to participate in a truly fair election, choosing from a list of candidates that noone has been able to censor. But should we dismiss anything short of that, especially given that we accept much less from our allies? Is Saudia Arabia taking incremental steps towards democracy, or is it merely window-dressing to fend off criticism from the west? What about erg's comparison to the Egyptian elections? Hosni Mubarak has never faced opposition in any of the elections he has stood in. The Egyptian system is every bit as much a sham democracy as Iran's. Do we owe it to the Egyptians to scoff at their so-called democracy lest we give it a shred of credibility? And what do we make of the fact that, if there were free elections in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, a variation on the Islamo-facist theme, would likely win?

I agree with erg's first and main point. Coverage in the press, and amateur analysis in this comments-thread, has squashed the Iranian elections into the mold of our favorite story: the triumph of forward, western-thinking, liberalizing reformers over the forces of theocracy and dictatorship. What were the criteria of the bulk of Iranian voters as they went to the polls to choose from a highly censored list of presedential candidates? That is a question worth pursuing rather than dismissing it out of hand and assuming that Iranians want liberal democracy and only liberal democracy and since that wasn't on the ballot, none of them could possibly have seen anything at stake in the election.

posted by: Ken on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



I will go back to my point, it is counterproductive to democracy in the region and the world to allow Iran to hold up this farce as an example of a legitimate form of self-representation. The difference with the other places mentioned ('allies') is that we are spurring those along a bit at a time. Iran is just the opposite, they have found a mirage of democracy they think can buy them credibility and will use it to hold democracy back instead of eek it forward. Any encouragement or recognition of this makes their job easier and encourages the regimes mentioned to set up their own sham form of democracy.

Lets put it in these terms, you could say that Hussein or the Soviet system of having his 1 name ballots was better than no democracy at all as well. Should that type of nonsense be encouraged because its better than nothing? Or should it be shamed all the more for being an obvious attempt to bury democracy?

Anybody else notice that insipid in defending this has been the specter that just maybe the Iranians want this 'democracy' and its not our place to curse legitimate self-representation on them? That maybe representitive government isnt all its cracked up to be? Or am i imaging the undercurrent of cultural relativism here?

posted by: Mark Buehner on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



Let me make an absolute, non-relative statement to begin with: Iranians would be better off with a liberal democracy and free markets. I cannot be sure they would choose this option if given a choice. We have seen other countries such as Russia choose illiberal candidates when given a choice. They do so to their own detriment.

The point of Dan's post in the first place, and of erg's response, was not that the elections were fair or not fair, but that by focusing exclusively on the reformist-reactionary dichotomy, we have been ignoring the actual dynamics of Iranian politics. It would be nice to know something about this. Maybe one way to find out about this would be to take this election seriously as an expression of the desires of the majority of those who cast votes (and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I am willing to accept that a majority of Iranians did so) within the parameters allowed.

Can this be called a true democracy? As you have pointed out, as long as the parameters for the election are set by the unelected Khameni and the Revolutionary Council, then the answer is no. But this is not Syria where 99% of the population votes, where the sitting president loses only .8% of the vote, and where everyone realizes that the whole thing is a cynical farce. Over 1000 candidates registered to run for president. The vast majority were disqualified. This still means that a large number found the election a significant political event. During the two elections in which Khatami ran, reformists were excited to have the chance to vote for him. They saw the election as a significant political event. And the regime still relies on the election to legitimate their rule and would lose that if the electorate did not take them seriously. Could a future president turn out to be a Gorbachev? Could blatant electoral fraud one day lead to street protests that overthrow the regime? I think the answer to both questions is yes, and for all these reasons, it is worth taking the elections seriously. We should try to understand the results, and not dismiss an opportunity to glean some information about modern Iranian society and politics by refusing to even consider the possibility that a significant portion of the Iranian population took them seriously.

Finally, Egypt is not making incremental progress towards democracy. Hosni Mubarak is grooming his son Gamal to replace him. Either you are legitimating this farce by calling it incremental progress, or you are on the slippery slope to relativism yourself.

posted by: ken on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



Fascist movements could never grow without the help of ordinary people, even conventionally good people. Fascists could never attain power without the acquiescence or even active assent of the traditional elites -- heads of state, party leaders, high government officials -- many of whom felt a fastidious distaste for the crudities of fascist militants. The excesses of fascism in power also required wide complicity among members of the establishment: magistrates, police officials, army officers, businessmen.

To understand fully how fascist regimes worked, we must dig down to the level of ordinary people and examine the banal choices they made in their daily routines. Making such choices meant accepting an apparent lesser evil or averting the eyes from some excesses that seemed not too damaging in the short term, even acceptable piecemeal, but which cumulatively added up to monstrous end results.

posted by: scoooby on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]



The above could apply to America and Iran.

American Right-Wingers - Iranian Right-Wingers - German Right-Wingers - Chilian Right-Wingers - Saudi Right-Wingers

A rose by any other name.

posted by: scoooby on 06.27.05 at 11:41 PM [permalink]






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