Election boycott drives a wedge between Iranian reformists

Editor's Note: FMSO’s Operational Environment Watch provides translated selections and analysis from a diverse range of foreign articles and other media that analysts and expert contributors believe will give military and security experts an added dimension to their critical thinking about the Operational Environment.

Source:Khatami biyaneh dad: Asir guzashteh nama’im. Beh ashti melli davit mikonam” (Khatami Statement: We shouldn’t be trapped in the past.  I call for reconciliation.), Asr-i Iran (The Age of Iran). 5 March 2012.

Michael Rubin: The importance of Iran’s March 2 parliamentary elections was not so much in their function to choose a new Majlis but rather because they were the first nationwide poll since widespread fraud during the 2009 presidential election sparked the largest protests Iran had witnessed since the Islamic Revolution.

That hardline factions consolidated control surprised no one. The Guardian Council, a 12-member appointed committee, vets candidates and disqualifies those before elections whom it does not believe subscribe fully and with sufficient fervor to revolutionary principles. The resulting ballot represented ideological homogeneity.

Under such circumstances, many disaffected Iranians debated whether or not to bother voting.

The regime places high importance on participation. The Supreme Leader equates high participation with popular support. Hence, Kayhan, a newspaper widely seen as the voice of the Supreme Leader, proclaimed that the “vast popular participation” represented a clear signal to the West that the Islamic Republic and Iranian people would hold firm against its pressure. Alas, the regime’s attempts to demonstrate popular solidarity are often clumsy. Only three hours into voting, the Guardian Council’s spokesman declared that participation had increased nine percent over the previous parliamentary polls, even though the regime had no way to gauge participation before ballots were counted. Meanwhile, Khabar [News] Online, a website affiliated with the hardline speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani sought to show how its favorite candidate was a top vote-getter but, in doing so, inadvertently revealed that votes cast by province were a fraction of what they were in 2009.

Certainly, Iranian participation figures must be taken with a grain of salt; the Iranian government allows no independent verification or observation. While the Interior reported 64 percent turnout, the popular news website Baztab-e Emrouz (Today’s Reflection) reported that the Tehran governorate dropped 2.5 million eligible voters from its ranks in order to inflate the participation rate. More likely, the Iranian government simply makes up its figures or eager to please commissars inflate their own district’s results.

For the opposition, loyal or otherwise, refusal to participate provides the safest way to signal dissatisfaction with the regime and its political direction. The Basij paramilitary can bash heads of protestors in the streets, but it has no mechanism to intimidate those who simply stay home. Many of the reformers and Green Movement protestors sought an informal boycott. After all, the regime leadership allowed them no candidates to support.

It was a surprise to many reformists, therefore, when former president Muhammad Khatami eschewed the boycott and very publicly cast his ballot. Khatami subsequently issued a statement—translated below—to explain his motives. He argued that his vote was meant to reverse the polarization that has beset Iranian politics since the disputed 2009 election and to begin anew.

Khatami’s efforts at reconciliation will not sit well with women and the youth, his traditional constituency. His actions recall his decision in 1999, against the backdrop of student protests, to remain silent rather than defend his principles after the security forces attacked a student dormitory setting off a week of rioting. Then, a decade later, he remained largely silent as his allies were dragged off to prison in the wake of the 2009 election uprising. For many Iranians once enamored with Khatami, his vote will be strike three.

Conservatives approached Khatami’s olive branch with derision. Fars News, a hardline news service, published a commentary speculating that the former president’s action was a cynical attempt to appease the regime and pave the way for a comeback.

Regardless of Khatami’s motives, rather than reconcile Iran’s volatile political scene, Khatami’s vote marks the beginning of the campaign for 2013. The Iranian regime should not be fooled by the calm before the storm. Khatami’s vote—and the reaction to it—suggests that battle lines are being drawn and that the reformists—traditionally the loyal opposition to the theocratic regime—will not be able to provide any insulation to widespread apathy or channel for growing popular anger.

 

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Michael
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  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.


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