Monday 23 February 2004

Iranian Election in Perspective

by Trowbridge H. Ford

In an age which boasts of democracy blooming, it is difficult to understand why the media are so loath to discuss how a country's electoral system really works, especially if it belongs to one allegedly hampering human rights, and how the results affect what the government does, and how it effects the country as a whole.

Most of the time, the media is happy to report the hoopla associated with predictable campaigns - like those for the American Presidency, and the British Parliament - and leave the rest to readers' imaginations even if it results in massive fraud, and doesn't serve in giving public expression to the people's wishes. The fact that Britain, America, and Spain went to war against Iraq despite the fact that a vocal majority of citizens was clearly opposed to it speaks legion about the state of self-government in today's developed world. And we are stuck with its results for the rest of the century whether we like it or not at the polls as there is nothing now that can be done to undo it.

Here one only has to recall the failures of the states in America to fix the electoral system which permitted George W. Bush to steal the 2000 presidential election. The United States hads a highly decentralized electoral system of single constituencies where winners take all, run by politically motivated agents who can do all kinds of things to determine the turnout and results in elections if so inclined - the result only being reviewed in the closest, most controversial contests.

In many states, there are also the widest provisions for so-called independents voting - what has been instituted to allegedly get more people to participate in the process but has actually encouraged partisans of one party registering as independents, and crossing over to vote in the other's primary to help determine that it fields the weakest candidates. If anything, many of its systems will only get worse with the installation of electronic voting because a result can be rigged by the private provider without any telltale evidence afterwards that it has occurred.

The electoral outcome is compounded by the fact that American parties, unlike their British counterparts, are such loose coalitions of people, funds, aims, and organization that their results are hardly predictable, given the necessary horse-trading that is necessary to get anything done. Thanks to the enhanced role of the media, party disorganization and disarray after an election is also compensated for by organized interests at the center, and back at the grass roots getting what they want.

Britain's media just reinforce the demands on voters, and expectations of interests about outcomes from party centers in London where candidates are screened for seats so that there will be no embarrassing conflicts with their leaderships.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is already gearing up to fight his third General Election with his large majority of dutiful MPs who are willing to hold their noses, and go along with anything he demands as long as they continue to hold their seats - something the Conservative opposition has hardly been willing to even contest. The legal impediments - votes versus deposits - against people forming new parties in Britain are so notorious that hardly anyone but screwballs with a sense for comic relief even attempt it.

Margaret Thatcher's government taught one and all forever of the dangers of parties engaging in infighting about who does what, and why. As a result of the Prime Minister's unexpected U-turns, especially regarding counterterrorism in Northern Ireland, and ultimatums about European integration, the Conservatives set upon stabbing one another in the back, started by the sacking of Foreign Minister Sir Geoffrey Howe in July 1989, from which it has yet to recover.

For anyone upset about how things are so managed in America, there is only derision and disgust. When Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate for the White House in 2000, decided to run as an independent this year, the media, thanks particularly to Democratic Party prodding, denounced it as the self-serving act of a spoiler without even giving him a chance to explain why he is running. Republican leaders even joined in complaining about his candidacy to help legitimize the Supreme Court deciding the 2000 presidential election in Bush's favor by an unprecedented intervention in the Florida recount during extra time. Of course, the complaints fail to explain how the situation in Washington and Baghdad could be any worse by anyone else running, and acting as if pressing domestic issues are properly to be postponed consideration until the endless crisis in the Mideast is somehow resolved.

In all this replay of the past, Democratic Party leaders overlook the fact that it was President Clinton's wheeling and dealing in the Oval Office, highlighted by his sexual encounters with Monica Lewinski, and about which he lied to a grand jury, which put at risk the chances of Vice President Al Gore being elected to succeed him, especially when Clinton pulled out all the stops at home, and abroad to avoid being removed from office. Gore was so upset by Clinton's behavior that he refused his assistance and support in gaining the White House, ethical judgments which clearly cost him many more votes among Democrats than went to Nader.

Given this electoral context in Britain and America, it is hardly surprising that the media are so outspoken, yet so uninformative about the elections currently being conducted in Iran. Voting in Iran has constantly been portrayed as the struggle between a clear majority of reformers dedicated to achieving some kind of Western democracy against an embattled theocratic minority, set upon making Iran into another Taliban-dominated state, as if the problem with Afghanistan was with it rather than Osama bin-Ladin's Al-Qaeda.

One should remember that the Taliban was willing to avoid an attack by handing over bin-Laden for prosecution by an independent state, provided America supplied sufficient evidence showing that he was behind terrorist attacks, especially the one on the USS Cole - what the assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood, and attacks of 9/11 rendered a dead letter.

In the process, the media has given substance to the White House's claim that the regime in Teheran is clearly part of 'the axis of evil' - what one could see coming from as far back as the election of President Khatami in 1997. Actually, the election has proven that Amerca is once again The Great Satan, and its allies demons of lesser proportions.

We were never given a clear idea of what Iran's constitution is - what institutions it is composed of, how they are supposed to work together, what they can do and not do, what they have done, etc. There was never any serious discussion of how the disparate reformers were ever going to bridge their differences regarding social and economic policy. All the stories were geared to show how its increasingly secularized youths with Western ideas were taking over power from the clerics.

As for the electoral system, it seems to be a system of proportion representation in which the country is divided into various electoral districts, and each voter has as many votes as there are seats being contested. To get elected, a candidate has to be supported by 25% of the total voters in the district, and if there are still candidates who do not receive the necessary votes, there will be runoffs later. Of course, elected ones are expected, as are candidates in other regimes, to uphold the established system, plegeding allegiance to it.

In the parliament, Majlis, which was desolved so the current election could take place, the reformers, including President Khatami, did little to make a mark upon public policy despite all their rhetoric. His Alliance for Democratic Rights swept into power in the 2000 election, but its member parties were so divided over implementing a free-trade, market oriented economy at the expense of state-owned enterprises while trying to address the deprivation of various rights that it literally fell apart. Even liberal papers in Iran were complaining before the election that reformers had been too cautious in what they attempted, taking public support for granted.

In this context, the 12-man Council of Guardians, conservatives who vetted the proposed candidates, may have even been doing the electorate a favor by barring 2,300 of them to start with, many of them so-called reformers, including 87 sitting members of the Majlis. Certainly, there were still several hundred liberals running for the 290 places in the assembly, and by restricting the number somewhat, it forced the electorate to focus interest more on those candidates who had a real chance of winning. Still, despite the barring of Khatami's brother Mohammed, the Majlis's Deputy Speaker, from running, the reformers in Teheran could not even re-elect Speaker Mahdi Karrubi.

Then one must look upon potential reformers with a sceptical eye. In the Western media, a reformer is anyone who wants to change, or better still, get rid of Ayatollah Khamenei's theocracy. This includes all kinds of supporters of the former Shah, and those who want to convert Iran, like Turkey and post-Saddam Iraq, into an Iranian Republic. The type of people we are talking about here are former members or supporters of the Shah's dreaded regime, its secret police Savak, retired military veterans, and agents overseas. Many of these people have a long history, starting with the Anglo-American overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq back 1953, of working with Iran's external enemies, especially CIA, MI6, and the Mossad, and one can understand why the Council of Guardians would be so demanding about the loyalty of prospective candidates. Many of the reformers want the state-owned oil industry restored once again to British and American private hands

It was because of the help these intelligence agencies gave supporters of the Shah that the Iraq-Iran War was fought to restore him to power, Saddam Hussein was supplied with all kinds of WMD, and shown how to use them against Iranians, Shites, and Kurds in the hope of ending the mullahs' rule, and the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner in 1989 to help force Iran to honor the peace treaty with Iraq. "After the 1979 revolution," William Blum has reminded us in Rogue State, "the Iranians found CIA film made for SAVAK on how to torture women." (p. 50) For those inclined to believe that this is just more fantasy dreamed up by conspiracy theorists, this was reported in The Independent by the well-respected Robert Fisk on August 9, 1998.

In sum, the message of the mullahs that Iran is under attack by America, Britain, and especially Israel has been more persuasive with its electorate than any pleas for dealing with foreign investors and their own social agendas, and the election returns show it. While the turnout was less than that in the 2000 election (67%), it was still more than when George Bush was allowed to steal the White House. And the slightly above 50% taking part was indicative of the necessary supporters of reformers returning simply abstaining. Little wonder that a surprisingly smiling Ayatollah Khamenei saw the returns thus: "Those who lost the elections were America, Zionism and the enemies of the Iranian nation."