Winning By Losing

Iranian Elections 2006: What Looked Like a Set Back May Have Been a Success

On Dec. 15th, 2006, the Islamic Republic of Iran held municipal elections, for both city council and for the assembly of experts that supervises and chooses the Vilayat-e Faqih of Muslim Ummah, the supreme judge in the matters of Islamic law. The principle winners were described by the Agence France Presse report on Dec. 19th, 2006 as “moderate conservatives,” suggesting a softening of the country’s commitment to a full Islamic state.

However, this is a major misreading of the situation.  All the winning candidates which include the political opponents of Ahmadinejad such as the former Air Force Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, and a former president, the religious cleric Hashemi Rafsanjani, an early supporter of the Ayatollah Khomeini – are strong supporters of the Islamic state system currently in place in Iran.

What is very important is that the political and media elites in the West accepted them as fair elections.

“The elections for the [Experts] assembly and for local councils are considered a test of popular support for Ahmadinejad,” reported the BBC on Dec. 18th, 2006. While the AFP report on Dec. 17th, 2006 considered the results as “a setback for the Conservative [Iranian] president.”

From the Islamic perspective, however, this so called “setback” is in fact a great victory for the Islamic system in Iran. It demonstrates that Iran could hold legitimate elections—elections where the population could express their support for, or opposition to, the ruling government.

Elections like this, where there could be a setback for the ruling powers, would be impossible in pro-western ruled governments in the region like the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia or Egypt, which has been ruled by martial law for over 20 years.

The salient issue of the latest elections for Iran are thus less internal than external. Iran has been the only Arab country in the past 27 years to hold regular elections, freer and fairer than in most of the countries in the Middle East. Were these elections not open, it would be difficult to imagine a ruling government losing key positions in a municipal round in this way.

The Western NGO’s working in the region have observed this as well. “People here are amazed how free Iran is,” said an analyst at the Open Society Institute working in the region – “if the ruling government could let itself lose the elections.”

The “defeat” of Ahmadinejad’s supporters in the elections has put the western governments in a dilemma. It suggests to people living in the Middle East, that if the U.S., Britain and France truly were behind democracy in the region, they would have supported and extended relations with the current Iranian government rather than isolating it with threats.

Instead, the election results have generated sympathy in the Muslim world for the Islamic government in Iran, exactly because people from Morocco to Pakistan lack the opportunity to deliver a similar “setback” at the ballot box to their own governments.

Therefore, in strategic terms, Ahmadinejad may have “won” the recent election even though he lost, because he is presiding over a citizenry that was free to express disapproval.

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