Who is the winner and loser of Iran elections?

Not just the hardliners but the reformists, too, have lost in these elections – except they do not know it yet.

Iran parliamentary and Assembly of Experts election
The retrograde hardliners were as disingenuous claiming victory as the opportunist reformists were fraudulent claiming a renewed life for their outdated and discredited politics, writes Dabashi [EPA]

The now standard reading of the results of the February 26 elections in Iran is that they dealt a “blow to hardliners as reformists make gains”.

This is not an entirely wrong reading of these elections, and the reformist-backed candidates will indeed make it possible for President Hassan Rouhani to continue with his post-nuclear deal rapprochement with the world at large.

But the habitual reference to “the hardliners” versus “the reformists”, helpful a rule of thumb as it is, in fact conceals far more than it reveals about what has been unfolding in Iran over the past decade and more.

Over the past few weeks, and in anticipation of the February 26 elections, a healthy and robust debate had been aired among Iranians in and out of their homeland: Whether to vote in this already rigged elections or not? This is a far more important issue than the convenient binary between hardliners and reformists.

Since the rigged presidential election of June 2009 that gave rise to the Green Movement in Iran, this vexing question has triggered a momentous occasion in the unfolding saga of Iranian political culture – as it seeks to outmanoeuvre a conniving ruling clericalism that wants to abuse any subsequent election to claim a dubious legitimacy for itself, and prove the Green Movement a foreign plot.

If the official numbers from the organs of the Islamic Republic are to be trusted, those who favoured voting in these new round of elections won the day, with more than 50 percent of eligible voters, maybe up to 60 percent, having joined the nationwide election of a new Assembly of Experts and the parliament.

If that is the case, then 30-40 percent of Iranians refused to accept that a wily fox such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is God’s gift to the cause of freedom and democracy in Iran, or that getting to choose who will elect the next T-Rex Supreme Leader is a step forward to the liberation of a nation.

To vote or not to vote

Under the smokescreen of these electoral feuds, and in the aftermath of the rise of the Green Movement in Iran, the decision to vote or not to vote in any subsequent election is the single most significant barometer of the direction in which the Iranian political culture is pacing its rollercoaster course within the tight bosoms of a beleaguered theocracy.

Those Iranians who were gearing up to vote argued that when the electoral scene was so drastically bifurcated between those candidates clearly favoured by the ruling conservatives and those favoured by the combined force of the reformist supporters of the former President Mohammad Khatami and the moderate supporters of Rouhani, then voting against the ruling conservatives was itself a referendum of a sort, and would go a long way to alleviate many real and tangible social and economic issues, bringing Iran further out of international isolation in the aftermath of the nuclear deal.

Those who did not advocate voting – and with all due respect to those who did I was among them – argued that this was a travesty of an election: It was already rigged from the get-go; it would cast an inevitable vote of confidence in the ruling apparatus of the Islamic Republic; it would make a mockery of those who sacrificed their lives asking the now historic question “where is my vote?” back in 2009; and Ayatollah Khamenei and the ruling elite of the Islamic Republic would use the vote to prove that he was right all along to call the Green Movement a seditious seed planted by foreigners.

Always conscious of its weak foundations, the ruling regime did precisely that, and soon began to spin the massive number of voters to their benefit and as a sign of the credibility of their rule.

Those reformists advocating voting began flaunting the picture of prominent poets, artists and filmmakers at voting stations as vindications that they were right.

The retrograde hardliners were as disingenuous claiming victory as the opportunist reformists were fraudulent claiming a renewed life for their outdated and discredited politics.

The ruling hardliners – led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – remain so conscious of their lack of national legitimacy that they use every opportunity to claim it; while the reformists – championed by former President Khatami – lubricate the machinery of repression by seeking to drag the Iranian political scene back a couple of decades when their infamous motto was “pressure from below and negotiations from the top”.

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Both these political machinations – just like the Republicans and Democrats in the United States, or else hardcore and liberal Zionists in Israel – cover up and camouflage a different emerging reality.

This is something that we witness in the rise of Bernie Sanders in the United States today and six years ago in the rise of the Green Movement in Iran. The Green Movement had far more radical implications than the reformists could stomach or the ruling regime could tolerate without brutally suppressing – the same way that Sanders campaign in the US today has far more radical implications even for the Democratic Party to allow, let alone the Republicans to fathom.

The binary is false

As I argued soon after Rouhani was elected president in 2013 that “what we witnessed during this and previous Iranian presidential elections is how the superior social intelligence of a democratically defiant public takes what the theocratic regime throws its way, breathes new life into it, and creates their own leaders”. That social intelligence is still very much at work.

What the highfalutin binary between the hardliners and the reformist conceals is something far more significant in the unfolding Iranian political culture: the measure of which is the evident dialectic formed between those who – for whatever reason – vote, and those who – for a variety of other reasons – do not vote.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani [AP]
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani [AP]

Those who vote do not necessarily believe in this charade, but their vote sends a clear signal to the world at large that Iranians are perfectly capable of playing chess with this crippled old nasty player, and secure a measure of political agency for themselves. Those who do not vote send an equally clear signal to the ruling regime that a significant segment of the nation remains a living witness to its naked brutality.

These two forces ultimately come together to form a tertiary space in the emerging Iranian political culture that says no to both domestic tyranny and to foreign intervention. Those who voted cannot afford dismissing the principled position of those who did not vote, nor can those who refused to be party to this charade afford dismissing the shrewd move of those who voted.

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While the hardliners dismiss the reformists as agents of imperialism, the reformists discredit those who did not vote them back to power as belligerent and outdated losers, shamelessly banding them together with those treacherous expat “opposition” who advocate sanctions and war on their homeland.

While the hardliners and reformists are fighting out their two versions of predatory neoliberalism, the Iranian voters – both those who vote and those who do not vote – have patiently paved the way for the rise of a much more critical force that the hardliners canot fathom nor the reformists stomach.


Not just the hardliners but the reformists, too, have lost in these elections – except they do not know it yet. The only winner is that beautiful dialectic formed between those who judiciously opted to vote and those who stubbornly refused to join this charade.

The tired old reformists who have joined their hardliner brethren in these elections are the carriers of a creative seed they cannot yet imagine in their power-hungry imagination.

“Louis,” as Rick says in that legendary line in Casablanca, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” … between those who vote and those who do not vote.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.