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Dispatch | Tehranis Talk of the Elections' Stakes and Khatami's Shock Ballot

by ALI CHENAR

04 Mar 2012 00:11Comments
425995_2771769936652_1330125598_32174004_630619298_n.jpgOne vote really can make a difference.

[ dispatch ] Many Iranians considered yesterday's Majles elections little more than an internal competition among conservatives, between those backing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and those supporting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and thus did not bother to go the polls. Others, however, saw some real import in the vote.

"If Ahmadinejad's faction wins, he could claim more power and follow a Putin-Medvedev setup with [his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim] Mashaei or some other close associate becoming the president," said Reza, a 30-year-old media expert. "Underestimating Ahmadinejad is wrong and considering him only a puppet is even more wrong. He has his own agenda." The president, he explains, is adept at manipulating and exploiting the disagreements between other political camps.

Ali, a middle-aged teacher, voted expressly to restrain Ahmadinejad. "Last time I did not vote he became president," says Ali. "Since then, we all are trying to dislodge this man from the presidential office, but he seems to be having too good a time to go anywhere."

The state-controlled and pro-regime media tried another way to inspire people to vote. Banners around Tehran, newspaper columns, and television and radio commentaries told Iranians that the "elections will insure the country's safety and security." The official line was "If you vote, America might not attack us." Such messages struck a chord with some Iranians who voted to keep their homeland safe. "What good will bombing Tehran do?" a housewife from Amirabad asks me. "They cannot hit these guys. We [the people] are going to suffer and die."

Some voted out of loyalty to the regime, while others did so for more personal financial reasons. "In our city, people who are relatives of candidates or related to them vote," said Somayyeh, who is from southern Iran and studies political science in Tehran. If their candidate wins, she explains, "it means they have a powerful voice inside the system to advocate their interests." Somayyeh also thinks that it's not about politics, but " getting more money for your city and county and getting your friends and family jobs." Iran might not be a democracy, but the game of political patronage is played here like anywhere else. So people vote, not out of political conviction, but to gain a larger slice of the oil-revenue pie.

***

One vote has overshadowed the rest of the news coming out of the election -- that of Mohammad Khatami, former president of the Islamic Republic and the spiritual leader of the reformist movement.

Khatami had previously called for a boycott of the election and his followers, particularly members of the banned reformist party Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), had similarly urged people not to vote. Their reasoning was simple: "They do not allow us on the ballot, so we do not have to cast one." However, in a surprising turn of events, Khatami voted on Friday in a village outside Damavand, 45 miles east of Tehran. His action sent shockwaves through the Iranian blogosphere and online social networks, where many condemned him as a traitor.

Why did Khatami vote? While he has yet to offer any explanation himself, his friends and associates are offering many for him. "I did not think Mr. Khatami would vote," Ali Shakouri Rad, a member of the IIPF leadership and former parliamentary candidate, wrote in his blog. He said the two had met twice prior to the elections and on both occasions Khatami had emphasized that he would not cast a ballot. Shakouri Rad does not know Khatami's reasons for voting, but he thinks they come down to one thing: "Fear. Fearing that all means for reform will be closed and all opportunities lost." He adds, "I do not know what [Mir Hossein] Mousavi would have done, but I know he would not condemn Mr. Khatami."

Another associate, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Khatami's former chief of staff, has a different perspective. He writes, "I have not seen Mr. Khatami for weeks intentionally. Still I told several friends and almost anyone who asked that he would vote." He believes "abstaining would have been a grave strategic mistake." He credits the former president with "boldness and true foresight. His vote disarmed the radicals and ultraconservatives within the establishment and denied them the chance to eliminate reformers." He adds, "It was not wrong of him to vote, it was wrong to think he would do otherwise."

Many bloggers, meanwhile, are claiming that Khatami voted to secure the release of Mousavi, his wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi -- the three Green Movement leaders who have now been detained under extralegal house arrest for over a year. One blogger declares, "Someone should keep the door for negotiations open." Another argues, "He is a politician and has to compromise."

Despite the support Khatami continues to receive, it does seems his vote was damaging. Abtahi and Shakouri Rad agree that people were united behind him in boycotting the election. News of his change of heart had an immediate, tangible effect. One Tehran resident tells Tehran Bureau, "I went to a voting station after BBC Persian TV confirmed that Mr. Khatami had indeed cast his vote." He saw a different crowd at the polls: "In the morning, the voters were middle-aged and appeared to be more conservative. After Khatami, voted the voters became more urban looking and from the middle class." Shakouri Rad sums it up: "Before four o'clock on Friday, Mr. Khatami was the standard bearer for reformists and supporters of the Green Movement. They demonstrated great coordination in action and acted in union." At 4 p.m., he showed once again he does not want to be the standard bearer, let alone a hero. As one Tehrani says, "It is OK not to want to be a hero, the problem is you cannot glorify it."

Or, as the Facebook status update of a democracy supporter reads, "In a relationship with Mr. Khatami and it is complicated."

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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