A notion rarely considered in the Western media narrative of Iranian politics: Amid all the mocking critiques over an electoral system that vets candidates, disqualifies leading reformists from running and talks of defeating evil plots of the enemy – a form of democracy does actually exist.
How else could you explain the election fever that swept through the Islamic Republic of Iran this month? Balloons and flags held high by voters young and old as they lined the streets last Friday waiting to cast a ballot; thousands of photos on Instagram and Twitter of everyone from an Iranian Mr. Bean imposter to a stony-faced goth girl holding up their voting cards; dozens of news editorials revealing – albeit very discreetly – both pro- and anti-government positions.
Final results indicate reformist-leaning candidates took the lead, including a landslide victory in Tehran. All 30 parliamentary seats in the capital will now be filled by President Rouhani’s allies. The voter turnout for the parliamentary and assembly of expert elections was more than 60 percent. Does that mean that 60 percent of Iranians agree with the political system? No. But it does mean that most Iranians recognize that votes can lead to real change. Peacefully.
Clearly, democracy in Iran is far from perfect. Scores of opposition activists and journalists lie behind bars and the key opposition leaders and their wives are still under house arrest from the highly disputed presidential elections in 2009. A state ban on publishing the name or picture of former reformist president Mohammad Khatami remains in effect. And certain campaign posters belonging to leading reformists, like the fiery former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, mysteriously disappeared from city streets in early February.
But that didn’t stop Khatami from posting a YouTube video urging Iranians to vote strategically for reformist-leaning candidates. Nor did it stop Rafsanjani from publicly condemning the Guardian Council, a body that vets candidates, for disqualifying a leading reformist candidate – Hassan Khomeini, the grandson cleric of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary founder – from running as a candidate for the assembly of experts. The assembly of experts is an 88-member elected body whose sole function is to elect the next Supreme Leader once the current one dies.
Upon hearing this, Rafsanjani was furious. “They [the Guardian Council] excluded the most similar person to Imam Khomeini: His grandson,” he told conservatives at a public ceremony earlier this month. “Who gave you the right?”
The answer to that is the holy grail himself: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For all the judicial bodies that make up the complex Islamic theocracy, all matters of religion or state rest ultimately in Khamenei’s hands. Still, the fact that the assembly of experts is an elected body means reformists or conservatives can play some role in influencing policy. And given Khamenei’s advanced age of 76, it’s widely expected that the next assembly, which serves over an eight-year term, will actually appoint Khamenei’s successor. Thus, making the election results more meaningful than normal, both for Iranians and Western powers.
Besides setting the stage for the next 10 years of the political landscape in Iran, it’s also critical because if things go as planned for the reformists, Iran’s conservative-dominated Majlis, or parliament, could actually be replaced by reformist-leaning MPs. Which, from a Western standpoint, is critical for the nuclear deal to survive.
“It’s important for the government to have an ally,” says Farhad Souzanchi, a researcher at Majlis Monitor, a Toronto-based Farsi platform that monitors Iran’s parliament. “The reformists want a parliament that is for and protective of the nuclear deal.”
One professor from the University of Tehran went so far as to call this year’s vote “a referendum on the Islamic Republic itself.” Which could explain the rather eccentric campaign tactics of the conservative faction: A massive poster of a crowned and jeweled camel depicting Queen Elizabeth has been plastered across the side of a downtown Tehran building for the last week. A famous Iranian proverb across the top explains: “The camel during its sleep is dreaming that it has access to lots of delicious food and eats it…all the while, it’s a false dream.” Lest the image fails to resonate, it adds: “Britain is seeking to interfere in Iran’s elections.”
It’s a direct reference to the BBC Persian Service for allegedly encouraging Iranians not to vote for certain candidates.
Unseemly and bizarre? Yes. But it’s no less absurd than watching the American elections unfold – a world where Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump of all people are setting the tone and where Republican candidates are lashing out at each other in a debate over whose loyalty to Israel is strongest.
At least, in Iran – as in Canada and America – a choice between two very different visions of policy exists.
As Canadian-Iranian Sam Khanlari notes: “When I was there in 2009 for the elections – there was a really vibrant democratic atmosphere – everyone was out in the streets debating. It sort of died in 2012 but now it’s back. I haven’t even seen that here.”
This piece was first published in The Globe and Mail.