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By Jamsheed K. Choksy and Carol E. B. Choksy
“Remember the last time we voted they ran us over with cars,” was a popular refrain urging voters to boycott Iran’s parliamentary or majles elections on March 2nd. Many Iranians vividly recall the savage ferocity of Basij paramilitary and Pasdaran special force responses to protests that the June 2009 election was rigged by the Ministry of Interior in favor of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many did not end up voting last week, but not everyone among the 48 million voters is ready to give up on reforming the system through the ballot box yet. “Eventually they will run out of cars,” came a hopeful rejoinder.
The Iranian public’s political disillusion is understandable. Their collective voice was brutally denied legitimacy during the last presidential election. All political organizations must register with the state which now bans groups that promote political change, by accusing them of “violating Islamic morals,” “failing to serve the public good,” and “promoting sedition.” Not just the Green Path of Hope (popularly known as the Green Movement) and the National Trust, but any organization that challenges the ayatollahs’ hegemony has been driven underground. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the leaders of the Green Movement and National Trust respectively, were placed under house arrest in 2011 and were not able to participate in the recent elections.
Approximately 5,200 men and women registered with the Interior Ministry to compete for 290 parliamentary seats. Then, the clergy-controlled Guardian Council, which oversees all elections, begun to systematically cull registrants by throwing out most of those who advocate sociopolitical transformation. Also, several dozen parliamentarians were not allowed back onto the ballot for failing to follow the supreme leader’s wishes in lockstep. Eventually, only 65 percent of those who had registered were certified as legitimate candidates. Other grounds for disqualification included allegations of “not believing in Islam,” “not being a practitioner of Islam,” “not being loyal to the Constitution,” and most importantly, from the fundamentalists’ perspective, “not being loyal to the Velayat-e Faqih [Governance by the Islamic Jurist].”
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been facing mounting opposition to his fundamentalist administration. The reform-seeking public wants to wrest social liberalization from the mullahs. Not surprisingly, and ahead of time, Khamenei declared the now-concluded elections for the next majles to be “the most important one” in the three decades of the Islamic Republic’s history.
Yet, as the Guardian Council’s pre-selection of parliamentarians became apparent, a refrain of “We won’t vote” arose, especially among those under 30 years who make up 50 percent of Iran’s 75 million people and who face high unemployment and constant harassment by the authorities. In response, Khamenei deemed voting for Islam-oriented candidates to be a “religious obligation.” Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the fundamentalist octogenarian who controls the 12-jurist Guardian Council which validated the 2009 election’s results, also urged citizens to “demonstrate religious zeal by voting for those who oppose the enemies of Islam.” More desperately, an influential cleric named Gholam Reza Mesbahi Moghaddam, who is a pro-Khamenei parliamentarian, even openly advocated “giving people cash handouts to encourage them to vote.”
Retired Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, now a senior adviser to Khamenei, had pleaded with Iranians to “take the elections seriously for the national good.” When voting took place, government officials claimed participation had been “remarkable and unparalleled.” They even extended voting hours. But observers at polling stations reported the real reason for delaying the ballot’s closing was that the turnout of eligible voters was lower than expected. The Interior Ministry eventually concluded that participation was about 64 percent (although the Elections Headquarters Director pegged it at "34 and a few tenths of a percent" on Iranian state TV before correcting himself in accordance with the official figure of 64.4 percent), so less than the 70 percent turnout for the 2009 presidential elections and well below the 77 percent of the 1990s.
Even as they voted or stayed home, Iranians had no illusions that the theocrats who cling to power would do anything other than claim the electorate once again legitimized the Islamic Republic’s existence by “appropriately deciding the country’s fate.” “No free or fair election has ever been held in the Islamic Republic of Iran. All elections are rigged,” tweeted one woman from Tehran. Another tweet cynically observed, “Does it even matter if we vote or not? They will count millions of votes tomorrow.” That comment was reminiscent of the morbid jokes after the results of the presidential race were announced in Ahmadinejad’s favor nearly three years ago with more votes than registered voters at many polling places: “The mullahs even raised the dead to cast ballots!” and “They say the twelfth imam [final savior] is about to return—it must be true for the Resurrection just happened and all the deceased voted.” Former two-term President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani seemed skeptical too as he cast his ballot this time around, hoping publicly that the people’s will would be honored, “God willing, the election result is what the people want and what they place in the ballot boxes.”
Similarly caustic religious overtones could be found in comments about the increased security presence in Iran’s major cities on March 2nd, aimed at quickly quashing populist protests. “Basijis are out there like the hordes of Eblis [the Muslim Satan] and Ahriman [the ancient Iranian forerunner of Satan] combined,” noted one voter in Esfahan. “We should stone them with Qurans,” suggested a Tehran resident, adding “Let them smash the holy book too; they will, you know, for they are the worst hypocrites.” Indeed, as they have consistently done since the uprising of 2009, the regime’s enforcers were quick to disperse even the most innocuous gatherings as potentially insurrectionist.
In Iran’s oppressive society the public’s mood is more telling than the official results, which unsurprisingly returned the ayatollahs’ supporters to power in parliament by a solid margin. While individuals’ election-time comments may not be statistically significant, they do provide glimpses into the mindsets of Iranian voters.
Supreme Leader Khamenei and his cohorts proudly present citizens’ exercising franchise as a “slap in the face” of opponents and a demonstration of the regime’s legitimacy. Indeed, for supporters of the Islamic Republic, the recent election was “a renewal of allegiance with the late Imam [Khomeini] and the revolution.” But many Iranians feel it was just another sham. “It is in reality a show and a political maneuver,” commented Tehran University political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam ahead of the vote. Ultimately, Iranians look to a brighter future, but are not sure when it will arrive. Tehrani female rapper Bahar projects the public’s pensive mood best, “They’ve done all they can, to try to take hope from us. The hope that someday, something good will happen. They haven’t managed to take that hope from us, and they will never do so.
Jamsheed K. Choksy is a professor of Iranian, Islamic, and International studies, and a senior fellow of the Center on American and Global Security, at Indiana University. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities.
Carol E. B. Choksy is an adjunct lecturer in Strategic Intelligence and Information Management at Indiana University. She also is CEO of IRAD Strategic Consulting, Inc.
This analysis reflects their own appraisal.
[Photo courtesy of kappazeta]