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How elections are secularizing Iranian politics

- May 19, 2016
A man distributes electoral posters in downtown Tehran on Feb. 24. (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

Runoff elections late last month in Iran confirmed that a fragile, if working, plurality of moderate and reform politicians aligned with President Hassan Rouhani would control Iran’s 10th parliament — ending more than 13 years of conservative dominance in the assembly. Having swept all of the legislative seats in Tehran in the first round of voting, the reformist campaign to hold the line against radicalism at the ballot box proved to be no less potent in the provinces than it had been in the capital. Against the odds and a formidable array of institutional barriers to participation, the unexpected triumph of the Rouhani coalition served as evidence that democratic breakthroughs continue to be a feature of the authoritarian landscape in Iran.

Recognition that politics exists in Iran has done little to quell the lingering suspicion among outside observers that elections ultimately do not matter. Skepticism of an Iranian path to democracy runs deep, much of it due to the gatekeeping presence of the Guardian Council. In preventing free competition — more than half of all applicants for parliament were barred from participating in these latest elections, a figure that included many sitting MPs — the Council has acted less as a guardian of the Islamic system than as a factional bulwark, a filter that, in the eyes of much of the world, renders Iranian democracy a façade.

Like any filter, the Guardian Council distorts as it illuminates, casting new light on Iran’s political development. Charged with preserving the Islamic character of the revolution, the council’s ad hoc interventions have had the decidedly un-Islamic effect of accelerating the secularization of Iranian politics. Freed from having to perform or prove their piety by the vetting process, the spectacle of politicians scrambling to out do each other with evidence of their “authentic selves” and religious bona fides, so common in the American context, is rarely seen in Islamic Iran; that work has already been done by the state. Having removed the burden of religion, as it were, the Guardian Council inadvertently empowers candidates for office to focus on that most democratic of efforts: hustling for votes by giving the people what they want.

What the people want are political virtuosity and a demonstrated capacity to govern, competencies distinct from the demands of religion and ideology. If, as I argued last month, the mobilization of the vote by ordinary citizens is shaping Iranian civil society in unexpected ways from below, then how politicians compete for those votes points to the emergence of new sources of political authority in Iran, sources that lie outside of Islam and the sacred narrative of the revolution and war with Iraq, formed informally by the contemporary encounter between state and society. Politicians who ignore these new circumstances court disaster at the ballot box.

Most choose not to. My research in Iran during the 2013 and 2016 elections demonstrates that even the most sanctimonious candidates go into battle armed with banners, flyers and tweets that emphasize their earthly credentials, degrees and distinctions fairly earned through individual merit and smarts.

For Leila Vatankhah, a conservative candidate for the 10th Majlis from east Tehran, that meant listing her religious affiliation as one qualification of many. Her campaign poster had a bulleted list of accomplishments — that mentioned her religion in passing amidst her doctoral studies, degrees in law and administrative experience as advisor to the vice-governor in the Department of Women and Family Affairs.

Similarly,   Mohammad Moghadam — who unsuccessfully ran for office under the conservative banner (he would come in 84th out of 1,021) — campaigned on the strength of a resume that included two masters degrees in mechanical engineering and public administration — twin credentials no doubt put to good effect during his time as vice-minister of electrical works in the ministry of energy.

Elections have become inseparable from the rise of the meritocracy and the post-war expansion of university education. As Khomeini’s legacy split into a million factional pieces — and the emergence of a more engaged voting population unwilling to ignore the state or to take on faith its official line — the degree list, along with the candidate list, have become the sources of validation for a candidacy.

As is so often the case in countries where education and access to the university degree have become universal, candidates in Iran seek distinction by stating where they went to school, not just what they studied. (One candidate, Farhad Ekhtarshenas, even went to the trouble of securing his professor’s public endorsement.)

In the context of Iran, this means that local institutions like Amir Kabir, Sharif and Tehran Universities figure prominently on campaign materials. However, it is not uncommon for to find candidates like the independent Ahmad Maleki, who highlighted his masters degree in administration from a university in the United States, Iran’s putative enemy.

In Iran, it is the degree that serves as proof of a candidate’s ability to govern. Lately, it is fashionable in many parts of the democratic world to dismiss political aptitude entirely. A rising tide of anti-politics across Europe and the Americas has lifted the political fortunes of the non-expert non-politician — be it the gifted physician, the mediocre businessmen or an actual clown — their campaigns for office buoyed by the conceit that sincerity and mere possession of “outsider” status somehow trumps experience and a learned competency in what Bernard Crick defended as “the political method of rule.”

The notion that the practice of politics, what Aristotle referred to as the master science, would be placed in the hands of the non-practitioner is unthinkable to most voters in Iran. Iranians view expert opinion as a virtue — a solution to politics, not its cause. If nothing else, the current popularity of the Rouhani administration is due to its perceived proficiency in governance. There is a feeling in Iran that after eight years of mismanagement under the Ahmadinejad administration — a period in which ideological fluency mattered more than faculty for politics and no one in government was in his “proper place” — the grown-ups are finally back in charge.

As Iranians continue the turn to the long-term project of bringing stability to their country, to using democracy as a second-best solution to intractable conflict, future aspirants to power are likely to be judged on whether or not they can keep the ship of state steady and on course. Iran’s post-revolutionary parliament has a historical turnover rate of 70 percent across its nearly four decades of existence — a figure inconceivable in many advanced democracies —and one that speaks in part to an electorate willing and empowered to hold its representatives accountable.

The inclination of the electorate to throw the bums out raises the only cautionary note in what has otherwise been an outstanding three years for progressive forces in Iran. Robert Dahl posited many years ago that democracy rested on the willingness of incumbents to concede the loss of power, especially at the hands of newcomers to the political scene. Against this standard, the news that the incoming parliament will feature more female MPs than clerics for the first time in history would appear to confirm that Iran is well on its way to a more tolerant order.

The movement towards polyarchy only works if the losers agree to continue to play the democratic game, and just as importantly, are willing to change their politics based on the logic of elections. Given current circumstances in Iran, a country where undemocratic spaces far outnumber democratic ones, the long retreat of the clerical class from the Majlis may be cause for concern, not celebration. And as Farideh Farhi and Daniel Brumberg have recently noted, fears that the increased participation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in elective office has led to securitization, not secularization, are likely misplaced.

It is likely better to keep both groups in the glare of the public sphere. Total victory at the ballot box by the opposition might render incomplete the long-term movement towards democracy — if it inspires losers in the anti-democratic camps to slip out of the light and back into the shadows, away from the one institutional realm where the people still have leverage, and not just on domestic policy. Keen on ending their country’s many years of isolation, the victory of the pro-Rouhani, pro-nuclear deal forces demonstrate once again that the politics of foreign rapprochement is as much a local as it is an international affair.

Shervin Malekzadeh is a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College.