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Uncivil society
Boycotting elections teaches intolerance

By Hamid Zangeneh
April 27, 2001
The Iranian

In the last few weeks, we have heard many groups, especially those in opposition, urging their people to stay home during the upcoming presidential election in Iran. This, in my opinion, is bad advice especially as we are in the early days of building institutions for a civil society.

It teaches intolerance. It tells people, you should participate in the political process only and only if your way is presented, otherwise turn your back. Wrong, wrong, wrong. This is a losing proposition for all except those who are in power and would like apathy, passivity, and indifference.

Boycotts instill and perpetuate selfishness and dictatorial tendencies. This is indeed a bad habit especially for those of us living in the U.S. where our presence in the local and national political arena means a great deal for our material and political well being.

One could roughly put the boycott advocates in two ideological groups. The first are those who have concluded that the country needs another revolution and those who believe in passive resistance.

According to what we hear from within Iran, even though there is a great deal of resentment, disappointment, and anger toward the regime, there is not much yearning for another revolution, especially if it promises to be a real bloody proposition. After the Iran-Iraq war and political upheavals of the past 22 years, people are not ready for yet another violent confrontation.

That leaves us the second group who believe they could embarrass the regime into submission by staying home. Problems with this approach stem from the fact that passive resistance has never been used and people are not familiar with the concept. This is not something that could be done overnight in a country where the mass media outlets are controlled by the regime.

Also, the Iranian regime does not value its international reputation and is therefore not sensitive to these tactics relative to the Pahlavi regime or the South African regime under apartheid.

Finally, and most importantly, is the question of consequences of one's actions. What would be achieved by this boycott? The clerical establishment's candidate would win and people would lose their bully pulpit. The President will echo the sentiment of the vali-ye faqih and the rest of his entourage.

Take a look at the American political system. Who successfully influences the policymaking process? Compare that to our own community and decide what should be done and which route is better -- active participation in all levels of the political system or boycotting the process until things are done according to our political and ideological preference?

How much do African-Americans, Latinos, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Christian fundamentalists, Catholics... influence the political system in the United States? Those who participate in the process influence it by being there and making sure that everyone knows about it. They do not hide their activism and even exaggerate their influence, participation, and unity as a block.

In the 1980s, the Christian right, under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, created the "Moral Majority" and contributed to the election and reelection of Presidents Reagan and George Bush. Falwell claimed the Moral Majority registered millions of new voters -- up to four million in 1980 alone.

For the most part, these new voters are conservative, born-again Christians. As a result, they had a direct line to the White House and the rest of the executive branch under presidents Reagan and Bush for 12 years. In the mid-1970s, the Jewish community targeted a few U.S. senators who were perceived to be "anti-Israel" and helped defeat them at the polls.

There are today 46 Jewish lawmakers in the U.S. congress. They give the perception, inaccurately in my opinion, that they set the agenda for U.S. Middle East policy. It does not really matter whether they do or do not. What is important is that the Jewish community is perceived that way.

Do you think Iran is any different? It is not. Those who are in the arena make decisions and set the agenda according to what they consider to be fair and appropriate. No one in any system would do otherwise. No one would go to a meeting and require his/her cohorts to do what is not in their own best interest and in the interest of those who are not there and have boycotted the process.

It does not make any difference whether they are Democrats, Republicans, Hezbollahis, Socialists, Social Democrats, Mossadeghis, Monarchists, or cut from any other cloth. No one has ever freely dethroned himself/herself for the sake of political fairness and if you know of one, it is the exception to the common practice and not the norm.

Did either George W. Bush or Al Gore consider quitting for the sake of fairness and magnanimity? So, why do you think Iranian politicians would behave differently and dethrone themselves in favor of someone else whom they do not like or believe in? They would rather have the system in their hands and rule than be popular, well liked, and well respected.

There is seldom a real black and white contrast between candidates in elections similar to the 1997 presidential election in Iran. Candidates try to position themselves in the center to appeal to a greater number of people. So, people must choose from what they are offered by their own political process. Regardless of our political views and tendencies, we must be present in the arena and vote even if we put a blank vote in the box.

Additionally, we all know that although one person's vote hardly ever determines the outcome of an election, the act of voting itself has a far greater intrinsic value as an expression of the voter's citizenship. Our absence in the political arena here and in Iran does not solve any problem except that it tells the rest of the community, including those in power, that we do not care and we accept their decisions.

Ghahr kardan (pouting) will not do anyone any good. We need to be engaged.


Hamid Zangeneh is professor economics at Widener University, Chester, Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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