Referendum on legitimacy
The election is more a referendum on the
legitimacy of the government and the constitution than anything else
June 16, 2005
There are two main reasons behind the significance
of Iran’s presidential election on Friday. One is the obvious
one of who will become president at a time when Iran is undergoing
tough international scrutiny for its nuclear program and the country’s
largely young population is becoming increasingly restless. The
other more important reason is that voter turn-out will show the
extent of the unpopularity of the regime.
The build up to the election has been most interesting. The
opposition satellite T.V and radio programs, oppositions leaders
outside and inside Iran, have been calling for a boycott. Many
are either too apathetic or angry with the regime to vote. The
optimism with which more than 70% of Iranians voted for Khatami
has been replaced by disillusionment as his second term fizzles
out without having achieved most of his promises. The Guardian
Council’s whole-sale rejection of many able candidates has
fueled the anger of a young electorate who is frustrated with the
socially suffocating and economically crippling policies of the
Since Iran’s victory over Bahrain in a soccer world cup
qualifier, here last week, there has been a feeling of excitement
in the air. That night after the match every major avenue and highway
in the capital was packed with people celebrating. Traffic stopped
for several hours. What gave the evening a political tone is the
way the theocratic regime controls merry making. Western music,
female singing and mixed gender dancing are forbidden in Iran.
So a simple victory celebration that would seem apolitical in Madrid
or Rio takes on the form of popular protest here. That evening
the celebrating masses realized that their numbers were too big
and their mood too confident for the authorities to dare raise
Ever since that victory it is as though the youth has seen its
own power and is bubbly about its potential. This last week has
seen an unusual number of demonstrations and even bombings by opposition
groups in Ahvaz and Tehran. Every night there has been unrest in
the streets of Amir Abad around Tehran University. Women held their
own demonstrations which led to many arrests.
The presidential race itself has also helped build the confidence
of the young electorate. They see themselves as an important constituency.
The candidates are all trying to attract the large block of young
voters. The front-runners, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani,
former higher education minister Mostafa Moin and former head of
security forces, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, are running American-style
and blatantly trying to paint a youth-friendly image of themselves.
Hashemi, who has dropped Rafsanjani from his name, is courting
the very Westernized youth that he called "soosools" (dandies)
not too long ago. His
posters and stickers, seen on up-market automobiles, don his motto, “Hashemi
4 Future” in English, the language of what used to be “the
Great Satan.” In fact he owes his lead largely due to the
fact that he is promising a reconciliation with the U.S.
Qalibaf looks more like a Latin singer on his posters than the
former chief of Security Forces. He has chucked the old army fatigue
look and even wears green colored lenses to give him a softer look.
He too is promising an easing of the social strictures which is
perhaps the primary concern of the young.
Most people I questioned told me they would not vote. Some like
my mother’s card- playing friends (all ladies in their eighties)
and the grocery man around the corner and the student of Elm va
Sanaat technical university, proclaimed loudly that voting in
the election is a betrayal of the nation. Others avoid the election
because they believe that it won’t make a difference who
comes to power. The power of the president is limited by the constitution,
it is the non-elected
bodies such as the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader himself
who wield real power.
Those few who claimed they would vote like my babysitter, who
is a fourth year student of English at the University, and is afraid
that if she does not vote (they stamp your birth certificate each
time you vote) she will not be able to register next term (a threat
made every time there are elections), said that she would vote
for Hashemi because unlike the other candidates his pockets are
already full and he is powerful enough to make changes. Iranians
seem to prefer a powerful candidate to one who is ideologically
The difference between the top candidates is not important. Whether
or not Hashemi wins, as most polls predict he will, there is a
movement towards openness and ease of social strictures
is a response to the growing needs of a young population. It
is also better for business. The Mullahs ruling Iran are mostly
pragmatist who realize that giving a little social freedom goes
a long way in appeasing a youthful nation and a self-righteous
international community. However, they will never relinquish
political power because they know that, as hated as they are,
it would be their death knell.
Friday Iranians will show by their numbers whether they want
regime change or not.
The election is more a referendum on the legitimacy of the
government and the constitution than anything else.