Hosein Ghazian presented a preview of the upcoming March 2 Iranian parliamentary elections, focusing on the challenges of attracting high voter turnout, competition among different political factions, and the state of the political scene during and after the elections.
On February 9, the Middle East Program and Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America hosted a discussion with Ghazian, a visiting scholar from Syracuse University. Geneive Abdo, fellow and Iran analyst at The Century Foundation, responded to Ghazian’s presentation. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, moderated the discussion.
Ghazian began his discussion with a joke claiming that the regime is so effective at counting votes and announcing electoral results that they can do so 48 hours before the election even takes place. He noted the regime has been claiming that 60 percent of Iranians participated in elections over the past three decades. Ghazian explained this statistic is a form of “propaganda” that evokes an image of strong voter participation in elections and support for the regime. In 2009, official statistics announced that 85 percent of Iranians went to the polls. But, after the results of the elections were announced, people took to the streets in protest, thereby shattering the image previously upheld. Thanks to the coverage by media and the Internet, people on the streets perceived their presence to be larger and more legitimate than that of supporters of the regime.
Ghazian explained that there is a greater danger in the decline of voter turnout this year, since the 2012 elections will be the first after the illusion of strong public support for the regime was destroyed in 2009. The regime wants to show that the protests of 2009 were just a passing incident rather than a result of legitimate popular disaffection, and high voter turnout in March of 2012 will demonstrate that people stand behind the government now more than ever. According to Ghazian, the images coming out on either side of the propaganda war will matter more than official participation statistics. This will determine the consequences of the tension between the regime and its opponents, act as a buffer to increasing international threats and pressure, and instill confidence in supporters disillusioned by corruption since the 2009 elections.
Ghazian then discussed the “challenge of competition” that would affect the elections. He explained that in the past, political boundaries were reshuffled to eliminate certain people or parties. After the 2009 elections, the two political currents expelled from the political scene were remainders of the 1990s reformist movement. Within the boundaries of the political regime, the extreme right, the moderate right, and the traditional right compete for a larger share in the circle of ruling elites. The regime must continue eliminating reformists, prevent the election of the deviant current (supporters of President Ahmadinejad) to parliament, and control competition between remaining forces in government.
Ghazian outlined the Iranian political scene during and after the elections. The 2009 elections were a clear message from the supreme leader that no force could exploit elections as a tool to threaten his authority or internally change the political regime. However, Ghazian anticipated that competition within the regime and with the deviant current will cause limited turmoil in the political scene which could create opportunities for reformists and opposition forces. If the supreme leader does not succeed in determining the makeup of the future parliament, which Ghazian said is improbable, challenges will arise that will continue into the next presidential election in March 2013. Ghazian concluded that due to the unpredictability of Iranian society and the major players in Iran’s political sphere, it is difficult to determine Iran’s future.
By Joanna Abdallah, Middle East Program