All is calm. For now.
March 10, 1999
March 1: Something is simmering under the surface. The recent Council Elections and the extraordinary campaign period leading up to it has been affected by the quiet and not so quiet gathering of forces unseen. While the Tehran elections were a major reflection of the politics at national level, once one steps outside the capital, the election in other cities and towns and villages becomes far more interesting not as political events but as sociological or anthropological ones. I have been keeping in touch with the Tehran elections from afar via the increasingly more brilliant and chaotic "lefty" newspapers, but these papers ("Khordad", "Sobh-e-Emrooz" and "Neshat") take a day to get to Shiraz from Tehran and as such, the temporal distance allows some emotional distance as well, which in turn leads to me paying much more attention to the local elections here in Shiraz.
For one thing, while the various factions are only beginning to find a foothold among the elite of the provinces outside Tehran, politics is still profoundly personal and based on an established system of patronage that runs deep in the marrow of this society, which has not come too far yet from the landowner-serf relationships of decades gone by. Except for the actively political and politically active university students, most people were voting either for someone they personally knew, a relative or someone whose picture was attractive enough to also attract votes. All around Shiraz, there were pictures of several young students in extremely "chic" poses staring out from campaign posters, the men beautifully clean-shaven (a fairly good indicator of not being terribly loyal to the regime), the women in highly visible and reviled-by-the-Right makeup. Though the country has suffered from chronic paper shortages that paralyze newspapers and drive book prices to relatively highly peaks, the cities are wall-papered in amateurish and indistinguishable campaign posters.
Determining the political stance of the candidates is often easier than knowledge o their platforms. Code words on their posters are indicative of their leanings, as are coded pictures. Though almost everyone "supports President Khatami," the real supporters and those affiliated with the left-leaning Participation Party or the centrist-liberal Executives of Construction visibly speak of "Civil Society," of the plights of "the youth," of the need for "recreational facilities," and of "freedom in society." Those on the other side have posters manifestly devoid of such rhetoric; instead their posters are sometimes adorned with pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini, and they frequently refer to "martyrdom" and "sacrifice" and to an "Islamic Society." This latter group also remembers the Revolution and the "Holy Defense" much more vividly than the former. While the campaign brochures of the former camp is -as a general rule-handed out by attractive "bad-hejab" (flimsily veiled) girls or by guys who look like they have stepped out of the East Village of a more Eastern J-Crew catalogue, the latter faction's campaigners are more sullen, even surly, have long beards and look doubtful when they hand a brochure to me, as I am fairly obviously "bad-hejab" and they assume that the brochure is wasted on me.
But this is all the relatively calm surface. What goes on underneath is amazing. All that seems irrelevant and can be reinterpreted in light of the elections is fascinating. Three days before the elections, a student who had apparently had an argument with the president of the prestigious University of Shiraz commits suicide by throwing himself from the eight floor window of a dormitory. Hours later, in protest, the University shuts down and the students go on strike, hold demonstrations near the university and the slogans of "Incompetent university president must be fired" is heard. The swat team is called to the scene and there are disagreements on the manner of dispersing the students - on whether or how many students are arrested or beaten. When a couple of hours after the dispersion I ran to the campus, the swat team in full gear plus the more sinister plain-clothes types with ominous walkie-talkies were milling about.
This may have just been a routine disturbance (as routine as these things can get), but the conspiratorial mind of certain Iranian acquaintances introduced a number of different interpretations. "This could have been a disturbance by Rightists on the even of the elections to cause unrest." "The Shiraz University president has a reputation for not giving easy grades to the quota students who are the family of war martyrs or war veterans." "The demonstrations were caused by the presence of the radical left and controversial newspaper editor Akbar Gangi on Shiraz University campus." Considering that in the less sedate Tehran, the campaign headquarters of the more "lefty" groups have been attacked by armed groups, one does not know what to think. The Shiraz University incidents is reported nowhere, and a few days after the elections, it is revealed -in a very inconspicuous column on the 8th page of a single "lefty" newspaper- that the student who had committed suicide wasn't even a Shiraz University student. Such is the quality of the grapevine in this country.
But there is something else, something real and tangible, simmering under the surface and interpreting the elections purely in light of factional differences are far too simplistic. In the small town of Fassa in Fars province, population close to 100,000, the original "Persian" Fassais keep themselves actively apart and consider themselves inherently superior to the "Arabs" in the town. These "Arabs" -which even the most educated and open-minded "Persian" Fassai reviles with something akin to blood hatred- are settled nomads of Khamseh tribe who are winning the war of demographics in the city, despite the fact that their post-War swollen numbers due to wartime migration of internal refugees was reduced through forcible repatriation of the refugees.
In Fassa, despite the fact that several candidates from well-known "genteel" families competed in the elections, it was the "Arab" candidates who by-and-large won the votes. The "Arabs" who live in the poor crowded slums of the town had come out in droves to vote. The election of a majority of independent candidates in smaller outer provinces that also suffer from visible class disparities attest to all these hidden factors that are not always observed by those who choose more obvious aspects. In smaller cities, people are voting for those they trust, those who belong to "them," whether through family connections, or networks of patronage: one of the elected councilmen in Fassa who received a high percentage of the "Arab" vote is a "Persian" physician whose clinic is in the poor "Arab" neighborhood.
The voters are also hearing about local issues and local issues generally seem to focus on a) water and sewer problems; b) control of the rising cost of living; and c) the plight of the youth. Astutely, these new politicians have understood that the young vote matters and as such they cater to the desires and goals of this ever-expanding subgroup. As for water and sewer, unplanned (read horrendous, ugly, and utterly destructive) development and growth of housing in cities whose infrastructure is still slumbering in 19th century conditions has led to massive problems for a great percentage of the populations all living in the "poor neighborhoods" which are at the lowest point of flood planes and terminus of open sewer lines. These open sewers and the propensity for flooding after the smallest downpour, combined with chronic drought, is a nationwide problem and certain astute -or less cynically, caring- candidates are trying to address this issue. As for cost of living controls, whether the budding councils will be empowered or allowed to provide subsidies and price controls or affect and change centralized zoning plans or alternatively be allowed a budget to develop infrastructure for low-income housing remains to be seen.
The method of holding elections however is more interesting than the issue (to me, the arrogant outsider who doesn't have to worry about flooding and sewers and rent anyway). The night before elections, despite a 24 hour moratorium on all campaigning, there are vast parties given by candidates where the most expensive kinds of meat is served. In the campaign head-quarters themselves, campaigners hand out candidate names and posters in apparent disregard of law.
In Iran, every person carries an identity certificate which has a page for election stamps. After the certificate-holder votes in an election, she receives a stamp and a date in the certificate. Rumor has it that this stamp can be easily removed with warm wax, paving the way for several returns to the voting booth. Also, since there are no residency requirements for voting (nor any way of controlling or confirming residency) and since male attendants of the voting centers can not easily compare the picture of a certificate with the actual face of a female voter -this can offend Islamic sensibilities- some voters "borrow" their friends and relatives' certificates in order to bolster the numerical strength of votes for their favorite voters. In Shiraz, rumors were rampant that 4000-5000 tomans (5-6 Dollars) could buy a vote. I don't know. I cannot verify the truth of any of these stories, except for cheating of female voters using others' certificates.
What I can verify is that the educated (quite different from the intellectual) elite of the smaller cities were not too happy about the ease with which anyone could become a candidate. I heard complaints that the "geda-goshnehha" (a very derogatory term for "poor people") would essentially steal and rob and cheat were they to become council members. I even heard outrageous justifications for this story that during Shah's time, since elected officials were from among the affluent and the powerful, they essentially possessed "no more hunger for worldly goods" and as such they could dedicate their lives to "serving the people"! Since most of the people spouting these theories were respected elder acquaintances and relatives and friends, and since I have already offended a good number of these lovely folks with my unorthodox ideals and manners, I chose not to argue their false superficial theories.
Nonetheless, the widespread participation in the elections by those who are either the among politically active or the economically dispossessed has been something of a celebration and a bit of a warning. There has been a reconfirmation of the desire and will of the people -the poor, the supposedly "uneducated"- to participate, and a warning that things are changing. Whether the slow simmer under the scar tissue of Iran will become a volcanic explosion or a gentle fountain of steam remains to be seen.