die for X or Y?
My first lesson in democracy
By Nasser Farahbakhsh
January 21, 2004
I arrived in the States in spring of 1976, the
bicentennial year. Jubilations and celebrations commemorating the
United States' Independence
Day were, however, overshadowed by the fog (and sands) of the
Watergate scandal. That year was also a presidential election
year in this country. Republican Jerald Ford, the un-elected
president who pardoned Richard Nixon, was running as the incumbent
who would maintain the status quo.
The main challenger, Governor
Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer turned politician, was the
Democratic Party's nominee, running on a platform of "government
reorganization". Senator Eugene McCarthy, a prominent opponent
of the Vietnam war, who promised "to end the nuclear arms
race", advocated "an end to wasteful, inflationary
spending in the automobile industry and in military and space
program", and opposed "spying, wiretapping, bugging,
and improper disclosure of personal records" as threats
to the Bill of Rights, ran as an Independent.
As a foreign graduate student, on an F-1 visa, I
was a self-proclaimed and unofficial observer of the election process
in the most powerful
democracy in the world. I had never voted in my life. I had only
"participated" once in an election in Iran. While in college, my
friends and I were
hanging out some evenings in Kaakh-e Javaanaan, a government-sponsored
youth club in Tehran.
On the night before one of the parliamentary
elections held in the pre-revolution Iran, one of the club's
administrators approached many of us and asked if we were willing
to go to the headquarter of the Rastaakheez (Resurrection) Party
and help the party officials prepare for the next day election.
In the headquarter building, we
were dispersed in several conference rooms, in which others sitting
tables, were busy filling election ballot papers. I was handed
a stack. Every ballot form had the name and signature (or finger
print) of a registered voter, but the rest was blank. I was given
a list and instructed to fill the blank column with names of
the party's candidates.
I was stunned. Before I could come
to grip with the situation I was in, the conference room door
It was a friend of mine yelling, "We are all leaving." I
was rescued. However, that experience formed my ever-lasting
view of the election process in Iran, to the degree that I
accepting Khatami was indeed an "unintended" winner
of the 1997 presidential election. Was that a new Iran?
These days, I read and hear a lot about upcoming
parliamentary and presidential elections in Iran. While the outcome
elections, and their effects on the future of Iran, should be
the matter of intense discussions, the main question being debated
appears to be whether Iranian voters will participate in these
elections, or boycott them.
In response to the latter question,
the conspiracy theorists argue that the electoral participation
in Iran is irrelevant. The proponents of boycott, however, contend
that the regime's legitimacy depends on voters' participation.
Others provide conditional responses.
The conspiracy theorists
underline failure of the 2nd-of-Khordad reformers in implementing
their agenda as a proof of impending defeat of any reform movement
operating in the environment imposed by the Islamic Constitution.
They claim that reformers were just a façade (happy face)
shown by the totalitarians to the Iranian people and the rest
of the world, for the obvious goal of winning political currency.
They argue that even if reformers win the majority of seats in
the next parliamentary election, and as unlikely as it appears
at this point of time, can extend that further and win the upcoming
presidential election next year, they will not be in any stronger
position than they have been during the Khatami administration,
and their own control of the Sixth Majlis (Hoghe-ie mehr bedaan
mohr o neshaan ast ke bood).
The conspiracy theorists suggest
disqualification of reformers by the Guardian Council, and their
protest and sit-in in the Majlis, is just a ploy to incite and
mobilize the disenfranchised voters. They predict, however, that
in the absence of voters' participation, hardliners will
generate huge number of votes (Rastaakheez style) in favor of
their candidates. To them, the vote is already cast.
The rejectionists, however, argue that Iranian voters
have lost their faith in the reform movement, and are looking for
alternative to the current regime. The majority who voted twice
for Khatami, and sent reformers en masse to Majlis, no longer
heeds their calls. In its collective wisdom the majority has
the smoke screen, and has decided it wants no part of it.
also stress that foreign powers are tired of dealing with parallel
governments in Tehran. Officials in the U.S. and E.U. prefer
negotiating with the real power brokers in Iran, as was clearly
during the recent nuclear energy standoff. The rise of Hassan
Rohani as de facto foreign minister of Iran, at the expense of
and even Khatami, is taken as an indication of the pressure being
exerted on Iran to rid herself of this dualism.
They insist that
a large turnout, irrespective of which faction the winners belong
to, will only enhance the regime's veneer of legitimacy.
They claim that Iran's "democracy" has been her
most effective shield against the neo-cons' onslaught.
A shield, they contend, the ruling clique would like to keep
on, as long as possible. The rejectionists consider a boycott
of the upcoming parliamentary election a vote of no confidence
the current government, a referendum of some sort.
To their credit, conspiracy theorists and rejectionists,
as well as many other political ivory tower residents, make a sincere
effort to validate their observations vis-à-vis the state
of affairs in our birthplace. However, while they have mastered
the art of
diagnosis, they are rather weak on the etiology. They refuse
to ask and answer a straightforward question, Why three successive
mass uprisings in Iran in the last 100 years, the Constitutional
Revolution, Nationalization of Oil, and Islamic Revolution, have
failed to produce a democratic system of government?
the absence of a clear answer, shouldn't
we ask, Why do we expect Iranians to sacrifice their lives,
compromise well being of their loved ones, and destroy their
country's infrastructure, in order to replace X with Y?
we are underestimating Iranians innate knowledge of the calculus.
They know very well that both X and Y are mere "parameters".
Either one can be used as a "variable" or a "function",
or as another parameter, such as a "coefficient". They
recognize that participating in elections is the ultimate
form of non-violent struggle for social change, even when choices
Iranian geometry strictly follows the Euclidean
postulate, "given a straight line and any point not on
it, there exists one and only one straight line that passes through
this point and never intersects the first line, no matter
far they are extended." In the meantime, Riemann's and
Lobachevsky's non-Euclidean geometries, and other intellectual
and abstract exercises, have to wait.
On the night of the 1976 election in the U.S., I
was sitting in front of the TV following the news. When a young
stepped out of the polling station, the local TV reporter
"May I ask you whom you voted for?"
She replied, "I am
for McCarthy. I hate Ford. I voted for Carter."
I yelled, "What?!"
My friend and roommate, an astute student of American
and admonishingly said, "It's obvious. She knows McCarthy
has no chance of winning. So, she voted for the lesser
More than 27 years later, I still remember
night and what
I also believe that Iran's sophisticated
electorate, after voting in quite a few elections of their own,
very well that in the next elections, participating
or not, they
between Iranian Fords and Carters. Thanks to the
revolutionaries, Iranian McCarthy is not running. That person is
in jail, or in exile.
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