February 29, 2016

Iranian Voters Seek Gradual Change, Electing Moderate Candidates

TEHRAN, IRAN - FEBRUARY 26: Iranians display their ink-stained fingers after casting their ballots for both parliamentary elections and the Assembly of Experts at a polling station in Tehran on February 26, 2016. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
TEHRAN, IRAN – FEBRUARY 26: Iranians display their ink-stained fingers after casting their ballots for both parliamentary elections and the Assembly of Experts at a polling station in Tehran on February 26, 2016. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Iran can still surprise. Despite thousands of candidate disqualifications, tens of millions of Iranians flocked to the polls to vote in their 2016 elections. Turnout has surpassed 60 percent. Victory by candidates aligned with President Hassan Rouhani already exceeds expectations. Thus far, there have been no allegations of cheating. This begs the question: What just happened? Votes are still being counted, but the preliminary results highlight a few key points to bear in mind going forward.

Iranian society is engaged

It would appear that a majority of Iranians inside Iran disagree with the people outside Iran who said these elections don’t matter. A variety of factors drive Iranian voters to the polls, but two are often overlooked.

For starters, demographics no doubt played an important role in turnout. Young voters around the world tend to be more eager about voting, and Iranians are no exception. Iran’s large youth population means there were millions of eligible first-time voters, and many young Iranians vote in order to avoid being turned down for employment or other government-related benefits. Having a stamp in their identity papers showing they participated in the electoral process is at best a show of patriotism and at worst, erring on the side of caution.

But perhaps above all else, these elections reflect Iranian society’s continued desire to bring about change through gradual evolution rather than radical upheaval. They are demanding pragmatic and democratic reform within the existing system. No one is calling for a revolution, and a diverse socioeconomic swath of Iranian society rejects foreign interference in its politics. Many Iranians inside Iran only need to watch satellite television broadcast out of Los Angeles to be reminded that their most viable vehicle for change remains indigenous. Showing up and voting sent a powerful message to the outside world that Iranian problems require Iranian solutions.

The government cannot disregard popular will

The Iranian government and its top political players take the electoral behavior of Iranian society very seriously — particularly after the contested 2009 presidential elections. Since then, many (but not all) of Iran’s political elite have tried to make adjustments to at least partially address the population’s political, economic and social aspirations. That’s a big reason why economic change played such a prominent role across the political spectrum in these elections. Rouhani’s coalition emphasized the need to take the next step in Iran’s economic recovery after the nuclear deal, while hardliners tried to play up the president’s alleged economic failures.

In many ways, these elections were a referendum on the economy — the perceived injustice and mismanagement of it, and Rouhani’s promises to make improvements in a post-sanctions environment. Articulating a platform of social justice, anti-corruption and government efficiency seemingly appealed to many economically disillusioned voters who have long been fed up with shortcomings on all three fronts. The level of voter turnout that Rouhani’s broad-based political coalition was able to galvanize shows that issues such as democracy and human rights remain important, but economic stability is the top priority.

Iranian voters also know that a functional relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government is necessary for Rouhani to fulfill his economic promises. That is why prominent hardliners such as former parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel; current chairman of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, Mohammad Yazdi; and current Assembly of Experts member Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi woke up on Sunday morning with their first hangover. Voting them out of office sent a powerful message in support of the country’s direction since Rouhani’s election in 2013.

Rouhani is building a coalition of the willing

There is a propensity to focus on the heavy political infighting amongst Iran’s political elite, but the reality is that there has never been a period in the nearly four decade history of the Islamic Republic in which its leadership was not engaged in cutthroat politics. Even Ayatollah Khomeini — whose authority was undisputed in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 revolution — could not enforce 100 percent obedience. Iran’s political system incorporates a wide array of actors, aims and interests, and Rouhani (with massive support from former Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani) has shown an unprecedented ability to cultivate unity in ways that facilitate positive political outcomes.

Rouhani’s efforts to build consensus received a boost at the ballot box. Iran’s multiple spheres of influence, power networks and political coalitions make it impossible for any top official — including the leader, Ali Khamenei — to make major decisions absent broad buy-in. Alliances and animosities within Iran’s political elite shift frequently, but Rouhani’s short-to-medium-term prospects for holding this coalition together are solid.

Coalition maintenance will likely slow down his ability to deliver on campaign promises, but the progress that is made will have consensus backing. This highlights the adaptive capacity of Iran’s system and the lack of any viable alternative power center. Knowing this, Iranian voters have empowered Rouhani to test the limits.

Political insiders remain key to shaping the future

Iran’s political insiders matter more than ever. Not only are they bound together by layers of family and financial ties, but also a shared desire to preserve the system — albeit with divergent views on what that should entail. Popular dissatisfaction inside Iran has matured to the point where organized opposition is galvanized and channeled through the ballot box despite the mass disqualifications of prospective candidates. This coherent challenge to the system now forces Iranian officials to address their own internal contradictions in way not seen during the life of the Islamic Republic.

Voters have once again reaffirmed that indigenous change without bloodshed — however slow it may be — is preferable to the chaos, death and destruction that plagues many of Iran’s neighbors. Iranians know they deserve better, but understandably fear the consequences of instability. To that end, they vote not to reshape the structure of the system, but rather to yield important changes in political alliances, policy direction and personnel. That, in turn, creates greater expectations within Iranian society that election promises are upheld.

This will not please desk warriors and armchair revolutionaries in Washington DC who believe America should overthrow authoritarian governments that refuse bowing to U.S. power, but it will be of great interest to the sober, level-headed American officials currently making Iran policy in Obama’s White House.

Prior to these elections, Iran’s parliament and Assembly of Experts were dominated by hardliners. Extremists still exist in both chambers, but that blurs the more important point: A more diverse range of views will now be sitting at the decision-making table in Iran. Politicians that have united as part of Rouhani’s coalition were at each other’s throats 10 to 15 years ago.

This reinforces rules number one and two of Iranian politics: Iran has politics and trying to predict Iranian politics can be a very humbling experience. That’s a key reason why millions of Iranians inside Iran chose to hold their noses and vote. It remains to be seen how many people outside Iran will respect the will of the people and craft policy preferences accordingly.

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

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