Why the democratic spring lies closer to Iran than to Egypt

Voting for Rouhani as an agent of change, however imperfect, was a more stable option than other alternatives.

Hassan Rouhani Iran president
He [Rouhani] won...in the way that most politicians win elections: On domestic issues, writes Malekzadeh [AP]

A presidential election ends and a centrist candidate running on a slogan of hope and change emerges as the winner, handily defeating his conservative rivals. Using networks close to the ground the victor produces a broad and winning coalition that includes new and first-time voters, women, youth, and minorities, as well as disaffected voters generally disgusted by the outgoing administration. After eight chaotic years of seemingly endless crises on the domestic and international fronts, voters are eager for a new direction in the country’s politics.

The loser in these elections is a former military officer and war hero with an earned reputation as an effective executive and a proven record of working across the ideological divide. He chooses to run against his reputation as a competent technocrat and to appeal to a perceived social and political base by emphasising his religious, military, and law and order credentials. This decision proves to be a major miscalculation of the country’s mood and the war hero, once the frontrunner, loses badly.

The defeat comes as a shock to the candidate and his conservative allies who, cloistered in a closed loop of sympathetic media, were certain of victory. The fallout from the election exposes previously hidden fault lines within the conservative movement and sets off what promises to be a protracted period of self-examination and recrimination between former allies. 

This is not a composite narrative of Barack Obama’s winning campaigns against John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012 but the story of Hassan Rouhani’s successful presidential run earlier this summer. Not unlike Obama, Rouhani won by basing his campaign on three basic and overlapping themes:  Fixing the economy, restoring Iran’s name and position in the world, and ending eight years of Ahmadinejad-style politics. He won, in other words, in the way that most politicians win elections:  On domestic issues.

Despite being one of the most well covered and closely watched foreign elections in recent history, recent press coverage of Rouhani’s emerging cabinet and administration seems focused on answering the question, “Who is he?” In article after article, reporters scramble to uncover the quality of his character, to solve the mystery of whether Rouhani is another Gorbachev, or to ask, as CNN recently did of analyst Reza Marashi, What kind of man is Rouhani?

Rather than ask “Who is Rouhani?” we would do better to answer “Who voted for him?  What is his constituency?”  Readily available and undisputed polling data and voting patterns provide a more accurate measure of the man and the likely direction of his administration than attempts to discern what lies in Rouhani’s heart and mind. 

That these empirical resources are ignored in favour of pop-psychology speculation reflects a continuing unwillingness by analysts to take elections in Iran seriously. Caught off guard by the results – just a few days before the vote several major outlets were confidently predicting a win by the hard-liner and eventual third-place finisher Saeed Jalili – many American and European observers have responded to Rouhani’s win by expressing skepticism about the validity of the vote and its importance. Statements that the election was “effectively meaningless” reflect the long-standing conventional wisdom that elections don’t matter in Iran, that democracy there is an absurd theatre, a distraction from the real politics going on behind the scenes and away from the reach of the public.

What these critics fail to explain, or choose to ignore, is why 37 million Iranians, nearly 73 percent of the electorate, turned out to vote on June 14, 18 million of whom voted for Rouhani. Outside observers frequently assume a level of knowledge and perspective not available to the casual observer or ordinary Iranian citizen. Unlike most Iran “experts”, however, voters who participated in the election must live in Iran and are therefore well aware of the limits of reform there.

For all of their hardened skepticism of politics, ordinary Iranians recognised that the elections gave them their best chance at producing change, what the sociologist Kevan Harris has described as a “ruthless pragmatism”. A clear majority made a reasoned decision that voting for Rouhani as an agent of change, however imperfect, was better than not voting at all. In other words, bad was better than worse.

The reality is that the regime had already experimented with staging an election that wouldn’t “matter”, with catastrophic results. The debacle of the 2009 elections made Rouhani’s victory possible, if not probable. Against reports of its demise and failure, a majority of Iranians made the decision, many of them apparently at the last moment, to continue the Green Movement struggle by voting, as a vindication of the movement’s victims. Rouhani, in this regard, was almost an afterthought. Most of the slogans sung in the streets of Iran during the victory celebrations that erupted following Rouhani’s win honoured the “losers” of the last election, not the winner of the most recent: “Mousavi! Karubi! They must be set free!” “Mousavi! Karubi! We got your vote back!”

If 2013 marked the conclusion of the 2009 elections, then it also drew out the lessons learned from that awful experience, namely the recognition by state leaders and members of society that after the violent crackdown on the Green Movement and eight tumultuous years of the Ahmadinejad presidency, change needed to occur in the domestic and international politics of Iran, if for no other reason than to prevent Iran from disintegrating into another Syria or Egypt. The tacit agreement between ordinary and elite Iranians to allow change to occur through electoral politics, however flawed, however limited, points to a shared preference for prudence over violent conflict leading to a possible free-for-all or the risk of foreign intervention. Here too, in the choice of process, Iranians decided that bad was better than worse.

Shervin Malekzadeh recently returned from Iran and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Swarthmore College. A regular visitor to Iran and a participant in the 2009 Green Movement, his articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, Tehran Bureau, and Salon