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Bird's eye

Better the devil you don't (quite) know?
Iran elects Ahmadinejad


Sa'id Farzaneh
June 27, 2005

The British say: "A week is a long-time in politics." Two weeks ago like many observers looking at the Iranian political scene from a bird's eye, I wrote: "Various unofficial polls suggest that the percentage of votes to the reformist candidates may be so low that even if the elections went to a second round (with Rafsanjani getting less than 50% of votes in the first round), the second successful candidate would probably be a maverick from the conservative wing - similar to the results of the 7th Parliamentary elections where little-known fundamentalists got the highest votes when reformists were altogether banned."

I was partly right, it went to the second round. Rafsanjani faced a conservative (although the hard-liner Ahmadinejad not the maverick Ghalibaf) and the reformists lost.

The British say: "Better the devil you know". I wrote: "Many observers believe this election to be an important cross-road for Iran and most agree that the election of ex-president Rafsanjani is a foregone conclusion that does not promise a great future for the country. The powerful Rafsanjani (Iran's President 1989-97) heads the Expediency Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

"So according to his wife, his current role has been nothing short of presidency. His dynasty has powerful commercial and institutional roles in the country. Nonetheless in his own words, he was forced to pick-up the poisonous chalice of standing for Iran's presidency himself rather than stay neutral or become a 'king-maker'. Not that Iran's constitution allows a president to presume the role of a king - this role is still reserved for the clerical leader."

I had indeed expected a majority of people to go for the devil they knew well. I was obviously wrong.

Not that Iranian elections, in particular this one, is like any other elections around the world. In democracies, elections are a serious competition between established parties and/or their representative personalities. George W (Bush) against Al Gore or John Carey. Tony Blair versus Michael Howard.

In totalitarian systems including Iran's theocracy, even if people are given choices to put in the ballot box, it is generally not who they vote for that matters too much but whether or not they vote. Elections are a vote of confidence for the regime: Not quite what percentage of the electorate believe in the system, but the proportion that dare to publicly express their dissent and not go to the ballot box.

In Saddam's Iraq a few years ago, this was down to 1%. The first post-revolutionary referendum (31 March 1979) saw 99.5% of Iranians voting for the Islamic Republic. The rest where told: "kasi ke rai' nadAdeh, haghe nazar nadAreh." (If you haven't voted, you aren't entitled to a view!). This time in Iran, even if you believe the official results, some 20 million chose not to go to the Polls. Many, like Iranian Nobel Laurette Shirin Ebadi, would not keep quiet and continue to defend their position.

Nevertheless, while real power remains in the hands of an unelected few, it can not be said that Ahmadinejad's presidency would not make a difference. Clearly both the candidate and the political groupings behind him were very much part of the Islamic establishment.

Against the iconic Rafsanjani, however, Ahmadinejad managed to convince a significant minority of the electorate that he was anti-establishment and that for the deprived masses he could offer a better and more dignified future. Some of those voting for him, not all as he also inherited an anti-Rafsanjani vote, bought this and chose to go with the devil they did not know well enough.

Maybe even a minority thought: "Let's give all the levers of power to this bunch, and see what they can deliver!" I do NOT know.  The future is hard to predict. One thing I do expect is that Ahmadinejad's presidency (unlike that of his predecessor) would not last two terms, even that his honey-moon period may not be as long as 100 days. But yet again how clearly can one see things from a bird’s eye?

Sa'id Farzaneh, PhD, is a keen advocate of secular democracy, peace and human rights.

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