The End of Iranian Democracy

by Reza Pakravan

Iran’s March 2 Parliamentary elections represented a high point in government-sponsored voting manipulation and a low point in the Iranian people’s enthusiasm for their government. More importantly, it illustrated how Ayatollah Khamenei has achieved a virtual stranglehold on the Iranian state.

Khamenei had pushed for a strong turnout. “The Iranian nation will display their firm determination and willpower to the enemies,” he said. The government launched a major campaign to get out the vote, even installing billboards along the major highway in Tehran that warned a turnout of less than 50% would result in an American attack.

Officially, of course, the election was a major victory: officials reported a voter turnout of 64%. The United Front of Conservatives, which supports Khamenei, won 101 seats to Ahmadinejad supporters’ 50. The rest of the seats (excluding 25 seats that are to be determined by a second round of elections) went to centrists and other conservatives, many of whom will side with Khamenei.

Khamenei declared it an “iron fist and slap in the face” for the West.

Western reports indicated that Iran’s smaller and more conservative cities participated in large numbers. But firsthand reports from contacts in Iran belie the blatantly deceptive impression the Iranian government hopes to promote of widespread participation. People from all sectors of Iranian society, whom I have met during my time in the country —conservatives, liberals, secularists, and religious people — paint a very different picture. They report a distinct lack of voter enthusiasm, even amongst the regime’s traditional support base.

It the story of a forced election victory – a Pyrrhic victory in that Khamenei’s insistence on presenting a strong façade to the West alienated even his conservative followers.

Ali, a contact who lives in the conservative city of Mashhad and asked not to disclose his full name, said:

I didn’t vote. All of my family members also boycotted the vote. I asked my friends and acquaintances, all of whom are from traditional and religious families, and they all said they didn’t vote. Not a one of them…Many of them had voted for Ahmadinejad or [conservative Mohsen] Rezaie in 2009.

What I am witnessing from the atmosphere of society is that [boycotting is] the right thing to do.

Alireza, an employee of the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency, claimed there were no signs of a boycott and that turnout was strong. But even he admitted that some parts of the city, particularly liberal areas, refused to vote: “Of course, North Tehran was not covered by any of the media outlets, because it was empty today.”

Zoya, a liberal former Tehran resident, who now resides in a rural area, said:

I went to the voting areas today, where the traditional people are usually out en masse to vote, but almost none had come out. You have no idea how empty the voting locations were. When the rural areas, which are one of the fundamental strongholds of the traditionalists, are so empty, God knows what’s happening in the rest of the country!

Further detracting from the government’s narrative, many Iranians were told they would lose their jobs if they did not vote. The government is the single largest employer in Iran.

Anoush, a liberal activist at Sharif University of Technology, told me:

One of my close friends, who had voted for Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009, and always hated Iran’s government, went out and cast a blank ballot out of fear that he would lose his job. I had urged him not to do so. Afterward, he returned to our car, put his head in his hands, and said, ‘Oh God, forgive me for what I have done.’

The elections only highlighted the lack of enthusiasm for the government and its charade of democracy. They demonstrate that Iran is increasingly becoming the personal dictatorship of Ayatollah Khamenei. With this engineered election victory, Khamenei aims to abolish the Presidency and turn the Parliament into a subservient institution.

Khamenei first floated the idea of abolishing the Presidency in October 2011, following months of bitter disputes with Ahmadinejad. Aliakbar Mousavi Khoiniha, a former Member of Parliament who now lives in the West, told me that this recent election is the first step in the ayatollah’s plan.

The next step is for Parliament to move for a referendum to abolish the Presidency. Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, a close Khamenei ally and relative by marriage, won the most votes of any candidate and is likely to become the next Parliament Speaker. He can then introduce legislation to call for a referendum. Thereafter, Khamenei will rule by fiat and a pliant Parliament will rubber-stamp all his initiatives.

Perhaps Ayatollah Khamenei was right. This year’s parliamentary election did represent an iron fist and a slap in the face of the West. But it was also a slap in the face of the Ayatollah’s own people.

About the Author

Reza Pakravan is a columnist for an international news magazine based in London.

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