What can be learned from the rightwing backlash that led to Ahmadinejad victory?
June 30, 2005--As the velvet revolution of 1989 unrolled in Prague, Czech activists recalled the dark skies of the Spring of 1968. They had jubilantly arrived at 89 by turning 68 on its head. Today, Tehran feels like it has been on a runaway time machine going in the other direction.
A decade's struggle for democracy has come to naught, or so it feels to the reformers who hoped to win the Presidency in this election. The rightwing that was chased from the elective corridors of the Islamic Republic eight years ago has come back with a landslide victory. But there were sufficient rumblings before this volcano blew its top.
It all started two years ago. After twice electing a reform president and empowering a reform parliament the electorate finally decided to give up on a do-nothing president and a parliament paralyzed by the right wing sabotage. Regardless of the causes of reformists' failure, people's despair was deep and blind. So, they stayed away from the polls, handing to the right wing first the City Councils (and hence the office of Tehran's Mayor taken over by Mr. Ahmadinejad) and then the Seventh Parliament. But the reform king preferred to continue with the assumption that it had clothes.
Despite their inept leadership and dismal performance, reformists had turned so complacent as to choose a weak candidate for the recent election to avoid disqualification in the vetting process. The dread of disqualification by the right wing Council of Guardians surpassed fear of losing the trust of the people. Finally, the voters had to spell it out in bold, banner-size letters. They turned away from reform and conservative politics in favor of a populist, rightwing revolutionary.
In the first round the traditional right wing vote (split among three candidates) ballooned to twice its previous size. In the second round the rightwing contender took another huge share of the electorate from its rival. Assuming that all of the votes cast for the other rightwing candidates in the first round went to Ahmadinejad in the runoff; he still had to attract an additional five million reform and progressive votes to end up with a seven million winning margin in the final tally.
Pubic distaste for a lethargic reform, the lower class economic concerns and their disgust for corrupt politicians, a nationalist surge against perceived unfair international pressures on nuclear technology along with Ahmadinejad's genius as a communicator and his organizational savvy among the factors that could partially explain the Tehran surprise of 2005.
Reformers who had held their noses and voted for an anemic reform candidate (Moin) had to wear gas masks to cast votes for a conservative silverback with a reputation for corruption and human rights abuses (Rafsanjani.) They are dismayed to lose after this compromise to a rightwing upstart.
What is left to do for the reformers (not counting moping around and worrying about a bleak future) other than pondering the lessons of the day. The first gathering of reformers to contemplate these lessons convenes next Thursday at the headquarters of the Participation Front, the main reform organization. There shall be no dearth of lessons to discuss at such a gathering. There are so many indeed, that the reformers could afford to spare a few to foreign observers and Diaspora Iranians.
This must be a good time to wonder why the Western news media is so replete with false or superficial reports on Iran. After twenty seven elections in a quarter of a century some foreign observers are still innocent of the workings of elections in Iran while the more liberal correspondents stop at discussing women's mandatory hijab and the prevalence of alcohol in affluent neighborhoods.
In the United States ignorance is compounded by ideological bias. Cynicism and conspiracy theories flourish in a culture of ignorance. A spate of neo conservative editorials appeared in the week preceding the Iranian elections in a range of respectable American newspapers from New York Times to Washington Times, alleging state sponsored chicanery and low turnout ranging from 5% to 30%. The charges of fraud were wildly exaggerated and the participation soured to 63% and 59% in the two rounds of elections.
Michael Ledeen's column in National Review Online entitled "Manny, Moe & Rafsanjani" exemplifies the slapstick logic and conspiratorial rigmarole that has come to pass as commentary on Iranian elections. Ladeen claims the voting age in Iran is 14 years (it is 15) and quotes the participation in Kuzestan province in the first round as having been between 3% to 5% (actually, it was 55.33%.)
It would be of interest to independent foreign press in Iran that Ledeen claims that media reportage of massive participation in the elections was nothing but old footage. Ledeen's article crawls with incompatible conspiracy theories. On the one hand 17 million ballots are alleged to have been fraudulently filled out "by the representatives of one candidate or other."
On the other, two million Pakistani Shiites are said to have been "bused in" across the Eastern border to vote for the rightwing candidates. One wonders why a regime that can so deftly manage to distribute 17 million fake ballots among seven contenders in thousands of voting stations would take on the expense and logistical nightmare of massive population transfers.
One might ask of what significance is such misinformation when it is propagated in faraway, foreign lands. The significance of this kind thinking is that it informed the ill-timed speech of President Bush on Iranian elections that was used to the hilt by the state-run Iranian TV to show America's blind enmity against Iran and to boost the vote for right-wing candidates. This may very well have been responsible for the thin margin that put the right wing candidate Ahmadinejad over moderate reformer Karrubi in the first round.
What is the lesson for foreign observers who prefer to see Iran through ideological lenses? Sometimes demonizing Iran could get them less than zero.
The expatriate opposition can also draw a lesson or two from this election. I think they, like the reform movement in Iran, suffer from the syndrome that Woody Allen once diagnosed in the character playing his brother in law: "your problem is the exact opposite of paranoia. You are under the delusion that everybody loves you."
Many in the exile community overestimate their own influence in Iran. Most of the exile organizations urged a boycott of the elections in order to deny legitimacy to the regime. They succeeded to convince a staggering 7% of the population which denied legitimacy only to the idea of a boycott.
Many among the expatriates are incapable of distinguishing between their daydreams and reality. The vista from Tehrangeles has always included the spectacle of an impending revolution against the Islamic fanatics in Iran. Any minute now, watch out, there it comes, the big one! Some exile opposition organizations actually urged people to vote for the rightwing candidate, Ahmadinejad in order to push things to their extreme and expedite the coming violent overthrow of the regime.
It is instructive to note that while the opposition contemplated this irresponsible plan, Mahmoud Doulatabadi, the Iranian novelist who had been targeted for assassination under President Rafsanjani, urged people to vote for the lesser of the two evils, that happened to be none other than Rafsanjani.
What is the lesson for the ex-patriot opposition? Although your main rival, the internal reform movement, has suffered a terrible blow, hold off your celebratoins. The enemy of their enemy is not always your friend.
Ahmad Sadri is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, IL, USA. This article first appeared in Shargh newspaper in Iran. It is reprinted from Z-Net.
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