On the Eve of Iran's Presidential Elections

Report from Tehran

by Naghmeh Sohrabi , Arang Keshavarzian | published June 7, 2001

After waiting for an hour under the hot sun, sometimes excitedly and sometimes impatiently, to hear President Mohammad Khatami speak, halfway through his speech the crowd began heading for the exits of Tehran's Shirudi Stadium. Both local and foreign media commentators took the mass exit as further proof that, on the eve of Iran's June 8 presidential elections, the Iranian electorate is bored—or even disenchanted—with Khatami's rhetoric of "reform." To Iranians who supported Khatami in 1997—particularly students and youth—the reformists' slogans have begun to ring hollow. Accordingly, during the 2001 election campaign, the press has focused mostly on whether Khatami will repeat his landslide victory of 1997. Anything short of that triumph, the press coverage implies, will signal the demise of the reform movement.

In one sense, the election is a yawner and does not reflect the existing battles in the Iranian polity. There is little doubt that Khatami will win, most likely by a wide margin. Most of the nine other candidates have not taken the campaign seriously—half of them don't even put up posters. Many of Khatami's most prominent opponents have neither endorsed his rivals nor nominated a candidate of their own. The candidates themselves claim to be independent.

But the electoral campaign cannot be reduced to official speeches, newspaper articles and polling data. Its significance stems from the critical space opened up by the numerous public exchanges between political orators and pundits and their audiences. Over the last two weeks in Tehran, various political factions have sponsored several meetings, large and small. State-run television broadcasts seemingly endless interviews, question-and-answer sessions with candidates and pitches for voter turnout. Election talk in both public and private settings is constant. The electorate continues to support Khatami and the reform movement, but its support is tempered by conscious and critical reflection.

Waiting for Reform

Throughout the election campaign, both the the Participation Front of Islamic Iran (Jebheh-e Mosharekat)—a coalition of reformist organizations backing Khatami—and student groups have sponsored large youth rallies. Featuring music, singing and flag waving, the rallies initially have the feel of a pop concert. The crowd's exuberant excitement dies down almost immediately once the speaker, in most cases a prominent reformist, falls into his or her formulaic speech, repeating the reform movement's slogans. At first, one is tempted to write off attendance at these events as mere evidence that youth are in search of entertainment in a country where public gatherings are few and often have a somber tone. But as the speeches progress, the crowds intermittently cheer and clap for the speaker. Because their support does not come on cue, it often highlights the young voters' criticisms and demands of their political leaders. A gathering at Tehran University's Technical College was a case in point. Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president's brother and a member of parliament, entered the packed hall to unrelenting applause. But as soon as he began his mechanical speech on the need for reform, the crowd's disinterest weighed down on the room. The students talked freely among themselves and passed around makeshift banners. A few minutes later, an unknown member of the Islamic Student Association rose to speak. He asserted passionately that while the students support Khatami, their support is not without criticism. While the past four years may have called for quiet leadership, he continued, the reformist students now needed a leader who would more aggressively move reform forward. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Despite the regimented nature of the question-and-answer sessions and rallies, voters use them to directly challenge the reformists' often timid agenda. At one event organized by the Participation Front, a mixed crowd gathered to hear a reformist MP speak. They were asked to write down their questions and hand them to the organizers, who busily sorted them into two piles: one for permissible questions and the other for questions beyond the pale. Questions presented by the audience ranged from the mundane ("How can I get a loan for my house?") to the ideological. The greatest number of questions, all of which were placed in the pile of questions not to be asked, concerned the legitimacy and role of velayat-e faqih (rule of the clerics). At another large gathering, a member of the crowd asked a woman parliamentarian why she backed down from her initial support of the reformist students and writers who have been imprisoned by the conservative judiciary. During Khatami's speech at Shirudi Stadium, the crowd chanted boisterously to demand the freedom of political prisoners, despite—or perhaps because of—the president's own conspicuous silence on this issue. When a homemade banner bearing pictures of jailed officials and journalists suddenly appeared in the stadium, the crowd cheered wildly.

Discriminating Electorate

Four years ago, Khatami was not the household name he is now. Conventional wisdom has it that large percentages of voters supported him in 1997 for who he was not, rather than for who he was. Today an analysis of the Khatami vote requires a new interpretation. Those who claim to have opted out of the 2001 elections say that, after the defeats of the past four years, they believe no one is capable of reforming the system. But Tehranis—shopkeepers, students, journalists and cab drivers—who say "I will vote" also voice pragmatic criticisms of the president, acknowledging the slow pace of reforms and their own unmet expectations. For example, prospective voters frequently fault Khatami for his silence during the attacks on student dormitories throughout the summer of 1999, and his inability to protect the nascent free press. Some Tehranis may be planning to vote for Khatami simply because there is no other choice. Yet voters seem also increasingly to see the procedure of voting as an established routine for registering one's participation and satisfying one's religious, national and revolutionary duty. For some who voted in 1997 and fall into the reformist camp, one hears talk of responsibility to and solidarity with the movement, especially with those who have paid a high price for their involvement.

This is not to say that Iran is now a country where free and lively political debate is encouraged or even allowed. Observers correctly report that the reformist candidates incessantly repeat the same tired rhetoric, sometimes seeming less like seekers of freedom than seekers of power. A significant portion of people attending the campaign events go because the events allow for a kind of festive and spontaneous public behavior that is otherwise banned. A vast swath of the electorate—the poor, and people from provincial towns and the countryside—remains outside the concerns of political discourse. But despite these limitations, the 2001 presidential election reveals a newly emerging political culture. As voters begin to hold Khatami and his cohort to their promises, the once simple dichotomy between reformists and hardliners no longer suffices to describe Iran's political landscape. Rather than signaling the failure of Khatami's administration and the reform movement, the multiple strains of opinion among Iranian voters can be seen as signs of an increasingly aware and discriminating polity.

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