Iran: Democracy and the coming parliamentary elections
Ardeshir Mehrdad in interview with the Farsi site tabaqeh (class)
You can see in the coming parliamentary election the central and ongoing contradiction of the Islamic regime. On the one hand it is employing an ever-tighter filter in the selection of candidates, rejecting all but 30 of the 3,000 reformist candidates. On the other, Supreme Leader Khamenei’ urges the people to go to the ballot box even if they don’t believe in the system. Here is a regime that is stuck between the need to demonstrate its popular legitimacy to the outside world, while it deprives its electorate from even a minimal choice. In such a situation the only radical democratic and sensible choice is a boycott.
Tabaqeh: Thank you for the opportunity for conducting this interview. Can we begin by asking you of own experience of voting in elections. Have you taken part in any elections in Iran, either as voter or candidate?
Ardeshir Mehrdad: No. I have not participated in any of the “elections” since the inception of the Islamic regime.
Tabaqeh: Do you believe in democracy? How would you define it? Can a healthy election procedure, under favourable circumstances, result in a process of popular participation in decision-making?
AM: Yes and no! For obvious reasons: “Democracy” is one of those grey, malleable, ambiguous, and potentially misleading terms. Unsurprisingly therefore, its supporters can range from Bush, Berlusconi and Sarkozi at one end and Balibar, Derrida and Laclau at the other. The word democracy is an umbrella hiding a range of governments, and hence with a wide range of definitions and historic experiences. At one end you might find systems relying on the right to vote, representation, elections, parliaments, a majority and minority and a separation of powers. At the other end you can find systems based on unmediated intervention and participation of all the citizens – implying a variety of social and political self-organised and self-directed structures and for self-government. Yet even this does not totally remove the ambiguity on how to define democracy.
As to the question you posed, democracy is only a ‘form’, one of the forms of state, or more accurately a form of government. Although this ‘form’ undoubtedly influences the way power is exercised, its historic role is defined by the nature of the state that became institutionalised in the form or shape of democracy. Thus democracy, as a form of state power which ‘guarantees the general conditions for capitalist reproduction’ will have an essentially different function from a democracy operating in a state whose task to is to oversee the transition from the capitalist form of production to another. Even similar structures or similar mechanisms of operation do not signify a single entity. The spectrum of those supporting participatory democracy as a model range from the likes of Michael Edwards and Jacques Rancière at one end all the way to the World Bank and the NGO’s set up by corporations on the other. Can one equate a participation that gives individuals a share in the sources of power and wealth and one whose main function is make use of participation to offload the general expenses onto the shoulders of the mass of working people?
The same can be said of the tendencies concerned with de-centralisation and transfer to “below” and “self-management”. Here again the class essence of the state defines the true mission of this structural transformation. On the one side there are those states that are ‘democratising’ through de-centralisation, and thereby enhancing the transfer of political power to below. In contrast there are efforts to paralyse and disable those mechanisms whose main function is to divert wealth and income to the deprived and those on low income. I must also add the effects of time and space and the various different experiences on the workings of democracy: differences each of which can prevent a generalisation and overarching definition of democracy.
With these caveats in mind if the question is what sort of government I desire my answer is a form of democracy where:
- Not only is legal and lawful authority ‘defined’ from below upwards but executive power too ‘functions’ in the same way from below upwards.
- The structure of government is made up from an amalgam of direct and indirect institutions. These are institutions where the range of functions entrusted to them determines the differences in their realms of jurisdiction. For example if the issue is the natural resources and wealth held in common then decision-making devolves to those organs or mechanisms that can reflect the popular will on a general (national) scale. However, where the need for decision relates to local issues, such as which language the young and old in any region wish to use in their education system, this is something under the jurisdiction of the very people who live there – i.e. a regional body or mechanism for decision-making. Finally if something relates to the personal life of an individual without affecting any other individual, then there is only one valid vote – theirs.
- Organs of power, direct or indirect, serve a government whose historic mission is a transition from capitalism to socialism and in the final analysis to put an end to the separation of the state and society and to move in the direction of self-negation.
As to the question of whether a ‘healthy’ election can lead to collective decision-making, it is my view that this too has more than one answer, depending on how we define ‘healthy’. Are we implying that the votes that come out of the ballot box have not been tampered with, or the final figures ‘engineered’ in some way? Or are we going beyond this and accept that such factors as the rules and regulations overseeing the elections, the supervising organ (or organs), sources of funding …etc are also responsible for their ‘health’.
Elections where the media controlled by the state or corporations engineer the political and intellectual atmosphere; where money has the last word in channeling the vote; where political or social freedoms are absent, or limited, are in my view neither ‘healthy’ not can lead to results where one can speak of collective decision making. Why? Because ‘collective decision making’ in an elected organ is conditional on the place that organ occupies within the political structure and the range of its jurisdiction. If an elected organ is below another organ (elected or appointed) in the legal hierarchical structure of the state and its decisions are dependent on the approval of the other then even the ‘healthiest’ of elections cannot result in ‘collective decision making’.
An Iranian Majles (parliament) whose decisions are vetted by an appointed institution such as the Council of Guardians, or even worse, a single ‘governmental order’ (farman hokumati) can annul its resolutions is not ‘collective decision making’. Rather, we are talking of the dictated will of the existing ruling gangs.
I would just like to add a small point in parenthesis. In my view in a healthy election we should be looking beyond collective decision-making and expect a decision that guarantees the interest of the elector. At the very least, elections should be staged in such a way that allows the elector to reach a ‘conscious’ decision. The real results and inner truth of the election are not determined by numbers and how they add up, but in what way they promise progress towards improvements in living conditions and in social relations for the voter and whether it points them towards a better world.
Tabaqeh: What actual electoral model do you advocate for Iran? Do you believe that all groups, supporting as well as oppositional, should take part? For example if the current regime were to fall through either a revolution, coup or a referendum such that the field is opened up for all the groups that have been suppressed to participate in the political, economic and social life of the country, how does the model of democracy that you described in detail above fit into this? Should one give equal and equitable space and rights to monarchists, Mujahedin, Greens, Kurds, the left ….?
AM: My reply would be yes. A replacement model that in a radical way breaks away form the existing arrangements and structures, the participation of all political parties and organisations as well as cultural and social movements in the elections is not only possible, but necessary. The existence of such preconditions as unfettered political freedom and the social and legal equality of all citizens in such a model is a guarantor for the free and equal participation of all political and cultural parties and groupings in the election, irrespective of whether they are monarchists, Mujahed, green, socialist, communist or anarchist.
Tabaqeh: How do you view the legal foundations of elections in Iran today? Can these legal foundations protect the validity of elections, or conversely are they causing them to transform and morph into something else?
AM: Let me begin by stating that to call on people to choose among a number of persons carefully chosen from the existing governmental groupings and carefully sifted through political, security and factional filters can be called many things, but ‘elections’ will not be among them. Whether these individuals belong to this or that current among the rulers, with whatever influence and scope or are supported by which ruling gang or gangs does not detract from this truth.
If what we mean by ‘elections’ in Iran is going to the ballot box, then instead of talking about their legal foundation, we should be talking of the basis for their ‘disenfranchisement’. In today’s Iran going to the ballot box is a ‘duty’ (taklif) and not a ‘right’ (haq). In the Islamic Republic the ballot box is a ‘vote of allegiance’ (beia’t) by the people for the regime. Popular participation in elections, whether voluntary or forced, is a show offered up as evidence for the legitimisation of the ‘system’. Those that have the right to vote for those organs that are eligible for so-called elections cannot refuse to ‘submit’ to the government’s bidding. In the electoral view of the regime non-participation is equated with opposition, with protest; with a negative vote against the ruling system. An act against the security of the regime. A punishable offence. In the Islamic Republic of Iran birth certificates that do not have a stamp of participation in election document a crime that carries the penalty of being denied many social rights.
The legal basis of what passes for ‘elections’ in Iran is the ‘disenfranchising’ the ‘ummat’ (community of believers). The latter has neither the right to choose nor to be chosen. Although this disenfranchisement is universal outside the camp of the rulers, its expression is more clear cut, more blatant with some large section of the population such as women and minority religions. For me, therefore, it is difficult to talk of the ‘validity of election’, their metamorphic change or their transformation into something else. In Iran the only real choice is non-participation in elections. This is the only meaningful choice, one that is effective, and of course will carry some adverse consequence.
Tabaqeh: With the boycott of elections (or what you call appointment from above and renewal of allegiance), can we also achieve any affirmative or positive acts? In other words can we build anything new that will attract people with a policy of boycott or demolition of the elections? How can something positive be made out of a policy of boycott while we know that the right to seek permission for any party, organisation, popular council, or syndicate, whether political, social or cultural is forbidden by law. With this in mind non-participation in the elections not only provokes the enmity of the government but also causes a rift between the individual and others who are persuaded to go to the ballot box through the false reasoning and propaganda of the candidates. These voters will slowly drift away and at the very least see the boycotters as unarmed revolutionaries who in a period of moderation and peace are seeking power just like the destructive forces of daesh (ISIL) and other extremists? How do you see the other choices?
AM: In my view neither taking part nor boycotting elections will necessarily result in any positive act or outcome. It is true that boycott at first glance is a negative reaction. It is also true that a boycott is a form of ‘resistance’, one that stands up to a force that is determined to impose its will. But at the same time widespread boycott is a form of struggle that can open up the horizon for asking new questions. In other words it can have within it an affirmative potential.
Boycott, provided it acts as a broad movement is capable of creating a space with a potential for change and transformation, to become an agent for social and political change. To lead to something that you have called affirmativeness. It is true that no resistance movement can always act as an agent for change at every stage of its development. But it is equally correct that no agent of change and transformation can appear without evolving through a resistance movement. Essentially I do not believe in drawing a clear line between the negative and positive action. It might be useful at this stage, methodologically speaking, not to separate and distinguish between the two concepts but examine their dialectical relationship.
It is also true that the ‘law’ in Iran does not recognise any rights for political, social or class organisations. But this does not mean, firstly, that it is impossible to for any political move or action to proceed outside these limitations. The history of all collective acts throughout the world is full of examples of political, class and social organisations outside the law or in secret. Secondly, it does not follow that using the very narrow spaces permitted by this totalitarian regime will lead to any opening. Rather, it is possible that such submission to the will of the regime could lead to further narrowing of the space.
Even a cursory look at the thirty odd years since the revolution can confirm the validity of my doubts. Moving within the framework lawful paths has repeatedly resulted in bitter retreats from the wishes and demands and ended up by lowering expectations even more. You can easily see how those who looked for political reforms and insisted on moving only along lawful channels were mere winners in a race to the bottom! Those who each day became more ‘realistic’ than the day before, each day stepped further and further away form what they termed ‘extremism’. We don’t have to go far. Just look at the results obtained by these people over the last three or four decades. If one day they had gathered around Karrubi, Mo’in and Khatami, they are now looking to Rafsanjani, Rowhani and Nateq Nuri – people they had previously dismissed as symbols of ‘conservatism’!
We are now left with the question you posed that boycotting the elections will result in a split between those that vote and those that don’t. Well, are elections in essence anything other than accepting divisions? Election means the separation of voters through the choices they face. Two of these choices are voting or not voting. In societies where dictatorial regimes like the Islamic Republic are in power, and where elections are nothing other than forcing the elector to accept its disenfranchisement, there remains only one real choice – refuse to vote. In such societies the absence of such a division can only have one of two reasons.
- The regime is able to drag all those eligible to vote into the voting booth.
- The campaign for a boycott can persuade a large majority of the voters that acceding to the will of the rulers and submitting to their own disenfranchisement is against their interest both now and in the future. Convince them too how much a massive boycott will at the very least lead to the spread of fear among the rulers forcing them to retreat and accept at least some of their demands. Furthermore, if there is any hope for even the tiniest political or economic reforms to benefit the electors, then a general boycott provides the best hope of that happening. A widespread boycott is the most effective road even to reforms.
Tabaqeh: How do you see the relations between the institutions of power (political and economic) and elections in Iran? Do elections serve the interests of the organs of power or conversely elections are a tool at the hands of people to face up to such organs?
AM: The command centre of elections in Iran is the leadership circle (beit rahbari). The placing of the chips, the haggling and much more is carried out at this level. The decision as to which combination of the existing tendencies in the ruling bloc can best deal with the challenges facing the regime at each juncture (and therefore has to come out of the ballot box) is determined here. The choice offered to the electors is also influenced by such factors as providing enough variety and range of choice to avoid the turnout falling below a certain level. Conversely, another consideration is to avoid deepening the already existing cracks and fissures within the ruling blocs, allowing them to become uncontrollable and worsen the crises of the regime. These are decisions exclusively of the leadership organ. Other institutions take up other roles. The Guardian Council and the interior ministry vet candidates, sieving them through a political, ideological and security filter; revolutionary guards, basij and ministry of information are given the task of controlling the political sphere and dealing with the usual protests that follow elections; the radio-television apparatus prepares the required psychological ground in order to draw the people to the voting boots, orchestrates the propaganda onslaught, and poses diversionary questions to deflect the attention of people. Real elections without doubt cannot serve the interests of the ruling organs. All the efforts of such organs can be summed up as attempts at closing the route to any effective intervention or influence by the electorate.
But the “election show’ is a different story. For those in power the successful production of such a show is an absolute necessity. For the organs of power the election show is an important tool in consolidating the system. If the regime cannot demonstrate its legitimacy through such a show (and in the entire period after Khomeini’s death it has persistently lacked this ability to elicit a spontaneous vote of confidence by the people) at the very least it will show its ability to control the political behaviour of the people. The election show is a tool in the hands of the regime to demonstrate its ability to force obedience on those who have the vote. Let us not forget that to deceive internal and external enemies about your real strength is one of the fundamental elements of the politics of the Islamic regime. What better misleading sign than a good turnout?
It is a also true that at some junctures the ‘election show’ became a tool for the people to confront the institutions of power. In such junctures the weapon of boycott, or voting en mass for those candidates that are furthest removed from the centre of power has been used by a large number of voters as a way of challenging the regime. There have been times when the people have faced up to the regime by turning the elections into a form of referendum on the entire system, negating it through the vote.
But it would be a mistake to conclude that the tactic of participating in elections and giving a negative vote, despite ephemeral (and largely psychological) gains, has been in any way in the real long-term interests of the electors. A cursory look at the election results over the last three decades show that the choice between the bad and the worse was no more than a strategy for survival, and paying a heavy price for that. By that I mean the sinking into a closed-circle route downhill, a closed-circle which starts with fanning the illusions of a large section of the population and the creation of false hopes and ends in huge waves of disappointments. The result has been surrendering more and more to those currents who preach greater and greater retreat ending up in a falling of general expectations. It was in such a downward spiral of hope that over the last 30 years the overall potential of political struggles across society has been drained and many social movements have petered out. Even class conflicts have been marginalised and the radicalisation of the political arena postponed.
Falling into reformist realpolitics and ‘show elections’ not only slowed down the wheels of social movement, it fueled the government machinery and helped its manoeuvrability. Experience of the last 30 years show that whenever the electoral show was well attended the regime was able to face its crises and worry less about losing its balance. It is interesting to note that whenever during an election the reformist discourse had greater scope and greater influence among society, the voter turnout was greater and the ‘election show’ more successful, and in the final analysis the rulers came out stronger. In all these cycles we saw the inner crisis lessening, the ability of the rulers to face up to internal challenges and control society increasing, and now the crisis with the world outside have also retreated from their explosive phase and international pressures on the rulers are also reduced.
Tabaqeh: The reformists, and one step above them the leaders and creators of the green movement are today recognised by public opinion as the opposition. Do you accept this? Whether your reply is yes or no, how do you evaluate the ability, the resources, force, and popular acceptance of the other opposition forces in comparison to the reformists? On the understanding that there is no possibility (and never has been) to give them equal campaigning facility.
AM: I see no reason not to call the reformists or the green movement ‘opposition’. Like many similar concepts opposition has many definitions, depending on the context: the what, the when, the where, and the level we are discussing. On this score while it would be a serious error to place the reformist and green movement in opposition to the system or ruling order, it would not be wrong to see these groupings and tendencies as an internal opposition to the regime.
Even a superficial examination will show that the reformists and greens do not agree and even oppose (though waveringly and inconsistently) some of the policies and programmes of the conservatives who hold the main rudders of power. But the same scrutiny will also confirm that these currents, even when they are labelled as ‘illegal’ by the ruling circles, consider themselves as part of the system and are under its umbrella.
If by the ‘ability and resources’, we mean the organisational cohesion, or the ability to mobilise and disseminate their views, then although in reality these groupings appear to lack these in any great depth, they have in my view, a considerable potential in these spheres. If we place these potentials within the favourable backdrop provided by the reduction in the nuclear crisis and add to it the huge tension latent in the general dissatisfaction in society we can talk more confidently that there is a greater potential for the reformists within the regime during the elections.
It is clear that if the leadership apparatus succeeds through its legal and coercive filters to obstruct the presence and mobility of these currents in the electoral campaign (the electoral commission has already rejected all but 30 of the 3,000 reformist candidates and even some ‘moderate’ conservatives – among the usulgarayan), or the number going to the ballot box is lower than the average, then the reformist’s chance of changing the makeup of the Islamic Majles (parliament) in their favour will be reduced.
You can see in this election the central and ongoing contradiction of this regime. On the one hand it is employing an ever-stricter filter in the selection of candidates. On the other, Khamenei’ urges the people to go to the ballot box even if they don’t believe in the system. It needs to demonstrate its legitimacy to the outside world, while it deprives its electorate from even a minimal choice.
We should add that the core of the clashes over ‘voting’ is not in the Majles but somewhere else. The Assembly of Experts that determined who will succeed Khamenei’ as Supreme Leader is the organ where competition for its control can really be called a struggle for power. We should see the current conflicts and tussles within the rulers as a prelude to the main battle – the upcoming election for the Assembly of Experts.
Tabaqeh: Taking a look at the history of elections over the last three decades in Iran, do you see elections as an effective tool for political and social change in the country? Can you name any political, social and economic changes that have been influenced by elections?
AM: I have great difficulty in identifying any significant political and social change in the more than three decades life of the Islamic Republic that were the result of elections. This excludes limited changes in the relative balance between the government and society and the positioning of each. I have already alluded to this in my answers above.
Perhaps I might be permitted to point to on one important change that to some extent was caused by the electioneering process. In the last answer I emphasised the undeniable fact that elections have strengthened the footing of the regime and their role in the reproduction of the power of the government.
Here I would like to add that elections have been a mechanism that have helped in the concentration of the structure of power and its transfer from the body to the head. In other words it has helped speed up a process that converted the group totalitarianism of the time of Khomeini to the personal dictatorship of ayatollah Khamenei’ today.
Tabaqeh: As a final question will you be taking part in the forthcoming elections for the Islamic Majles?