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Guessing games
2005 Iranian presidential elections and the media



July 25, 2005

It is estimated that between 18 to 20 million Iranians did not vote in the recent presidential elections in each round. Given the fact that the Iranian population is highly political, critical of its regime, and in many ways affected by the outcome of any political event, the boycott must be understood as a political statement.

That is especially true when we remember that these people did not respond when many of the country's authorities and religious leaders presented participation in the election as a national and religious duty. Even the presence of so many choices for the office of the president did not deter the boycotters. A very small percentage could have failed to vote simply out of political lethargy, but the vast majority of the above number purposely abstained.

The boycott reveals a few points thus far ignored in political analyses of the elections. First, this disfranchised segment of the society is the base that could have helped one of the reformist candidates win. In particular, Mostafa Moin, who, though he campaigned on a radical reformist ticket, failed to mobilize this segment of society and convince them to vote. A mere one million or so additional votes given by the boycotters could have sent him into the second round (if we believe that the election was not completely rigged).

Second, in addition to all the limitations imposed on Moin's campaign by the officials and pressure groups, he suffered from the fact that almost all of the other candidates usurped his slogans, thus creating a sense of laisse-faire among the boycotters. Finally, it was, of course, counterproductive that so many candidates ran on a reformist ticket thus splitting the moderate vote.

The reformist candidates and in particular Moin failed to address three arguments that any visitor to the country during the election could hear on the streets of Tehran from the boycotters and others. The first argument was that voting for any of the candidates translated into voting for the entire regime. The second was that even if the most radical reformist was elected, he could not do anything in the face of the unelected officials who possess the real power. Third, the outcome of the election has been decided from before, and Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani would win no matter what.

The unity of these arguments among persons from diverse backgrounds and classes was amazing. Iranians can be changing their minds at the last moment in not only the matter of elections, but also regarding issues of daily life. In elections, many of them make their final decision in the "over time," or the "dead time" using a terminology from soccer, i. e., during the last 24 hours prior to the election when the campaigns must legally stop. (This was especially true in the case of those who voted for the president-elect Mr. Ahmedinejad, who was behind in polls conducted prior to election day). However, prior to the first round election, these arguments could be heard in taxis, in lines at stores and offices, at family parties, and most loudly in the oppositional media. One could not help but wonder about the unanimity of these arguments.

Speaking of the media, the Los Angeles-based Persian satellite TV and radio stations relentlessly forwarded the above arguments against the presidential elections. For many weeks prior to the election a choir of voices shouted that the regime's oppression of people and alleged terrorist activities means that to vote was to support legalizing an unlawful regime. These satellite TV stations were not alone.

Oppositional journals and websites belonging to all sorts of groups participated in this media blitz. They reviewed the regime's 26-year record through the use of sound, image, music, and documentaries to remind people that nothing has changed since the beginning of the 1979 Revolution. They also benefited from and amplified the participation in the boycott of such prominent personalities as Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Simin Behbahani, an acclaimed poet and outspoken woman activist, Akbar Ganji, the most prominent political prisoner.

Some of the stations managed to interview a couple of academic scholars to bolster their arguments for making Tehran on election day look like a "ghost town." It became clear that even though normally people watch these TV stations for their dancing and singing programs, they also pay attention to the political views they espouse during a political event. They perhaps did listen to the commentaries with great interest and rapt attention since the official TV and radio stations in Iran would not cease promoting the elections as a duty and urging people to participate. People were caught in a veritable media war between stations based in Iran and those broadcasting from outside.

Moreover, it is perhaps possible only in Iran for the government's mass media inside as well as for its opponents outside to both pronounce victory after an election. The government's media declared victory saying that 60 to 63 percent of the nearly 45 million eligible Iranians voted. The LA-based TV and Radio stations similarly declared victory saying that most eligible voters did not participate.

The oppositional media refused to understand that the fate of the Iranian people would not be determined through voting or boycotting, that it would depend on how deep the discourse of reform and modernity penetrated Iranian society. They did not talk about the fact that so many candidates presented themselves as reformist, and this was indeed an essential outcome of process of political development even though it did not benefit the reformist camp immediately.

A tangible result is perhaps the fact that the president-elect who represents the fundamentalist camp (but was voted in by many more Iranians who did not want to see more of Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani, who were tired of corruptions, who were persuaded by some segments of military to vote for him as a people's man, etc.) has not so far declared a policy of nullifying reforms already achieved. He has, indeed, confirmed his intention to continue with similar policies. The proof is, as they say, in the pudding: all sorts of media, with contradictory anticipations, have now to glue their eyes on President Ahmadinejad.

Kamran Talattof is associate professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Jerome W. Clinton was professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.

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Kamran Talattof


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