The recent parliamentary elections have been even less free and fair than it used to be the case, especially since the reformists were in practice excluded, with the leaders of the Green Movement, Moussavi and Karrubi, under home arrest and their would-be candidates massively excluded by the Guardian Council. Yet, these elections are not without their significance. They are not just a show.
Certainly one can question the figure given by the regime about voter participation (64.6 per cent of the potential electorate). The peak of voter participation in Iran was in 2009, when even people who were skeptical about the use of participating in such a curtailed, handicapped, democratic exercise joined the electorate in the hope that Moussavi could signal a new attempt at reforming the system. Incidentally, this is why the doubts about the victory of Ahmadinejad at the first tour are more than justified: there is no way that those “new” voters can be ascribed to Ahmadinejad.
If you can rig the result, you can rig also the participation – but what correspondents saw when they went around on voting day was near-empty polling stations in upscale neighborhoods of North Tehran, and crowds in the popular areas of South Tehran (and presumably also in the provinces).
Whatever the regime manipulation of the results, what is clear is that the country is divided, socially before being split politically. The regime has certainly lost support after 2009, but it still has a significant base among the less educated and the less wealthy. The Oscar-winning Iranian film A Separation should be mandatory for anyone wanting to understand this tension between elites and common people, a tension which opens up a space for populism and for the residual strength of a late revolutionary regime which has not totally lost its ideological appeal (and its material tools for gathering consensus: nobody starves in Iran).
Reformists – and also the most recent attempt at reviving reformism, the Green Movement – have grossly underestimated this social dimension. The educated elites and the upper and middle class cannot by themselves build a democratic alternative to the regime.
Besides proving again that Iran cannot be described as consisting of a population of 70 million people suffering under the dictatorship of a limited number of mullahs and pasdaran, these parliamentary elections have always been very significant in allowing to assess the current relation of forces within a sharply divided regime, in particular between the Supreme Leader Khamenei and the President Ahmadinejad.
The score is not ambiguous. Khamenei 1- Ahmadinejad 0. Followers of the President have been massively beaten at the polls, and even Ahmadinejad’s sister was not elected. The regime in all its componentes wants to survive, and it seems that it is already shifting to a post-Ahmadinejad mode, rallying around the core figure – not a dictator, since he still has to negotiate, coordinate, mediate – who is already preparing the next phase. One which will not see a new President (who will be elected next year) invested by Ahmadinejad, but rather someone “invented” by Khamenei just as Ahmadinejad was “invented” in 2005.
And it cannot be ruled out that Khamenei, in order to eliminate the contradictions that have plagued the regime in the past few years, might even decide to push for a constitutional reform abolishing the President in favor of a Prime Minister.
In alternative, and less ambitiously, he might have already set his sights on a new President: probably an authoritarian modernizer, certainly not a member of the clergy, and most likely a former member of the Revolutionary Guards. The present mayor of Tehran, Qalibaf, might well fit the description.
Roberto Toscano is Italy’s former ambassador to Iran and India
Image: Abode of Chaos (cc)