April 27, 2013

Presidential Election as a Political Action – Or not?

Abstract: in my opinion, participation in presidential elections of Iran is more like attending a popular drama rather than a genuine political action, whose functions are more social rather than political. This can help explain some of the surprising features of Iranian presidential elections.

Let’s suppose that you are using a state-of-the-art telescope, exploring the extremes of universe. And you, accidentally, come across a living, seemingly smart population of humans. You observe them for a long time, and try to make sense of what they do. No matter how much effort you put into it, you are always prone to interpreting their actions in terms of what they mean to you and people around you, on your own planet.

Back on earth, this very problem complicates intercultural comparisons. Seemingly similar acts might mean differently to people from various cultural backgrounds. And there is a huge body of anecdotes of weird, funny or embarrassing incidents caused by this problem. When making cultural judgments, one should be careful not to get deceived by this internal temptation to assume “some things are/mean similar everywhere.”

The political culture is no exception to the above miscalculation. Whenever I read papers in western media about politics in Iranian society, especially when it relates to the ordinary citizens, I can usually trace some sort of false presumptions of this kind. As a matter of fact, many forms of political activity in Middle East states are borrowed from their western counterparts, thus making them share a formative appearance. This, however, doesn't mean that people’s perceptions, motivations and post-mortem evaluations of such activities are similar in two sides of the world.

Iranian presidential elections have always puzzled external observers as much as internal ones. As far as I know, some of the important, exotic features of presidential elections in Iran include: high rates of turnout (usually over 60 percent) with unexpected results in some cases; the rule of Two Terms in Office despite dissents; popular demand for dramatic events leading up to the election (that, this time, includes confusion over possible candidates with less than two months to go before the election date); failure of pollsters in depicting the true landscape; a short-term political memory that surprises observers; limited public protests against state-sponsored barriers to political activity; and a cool political atmosphere before and after the election.

These features together make me wondering if there is a genuine political action in Iran’s presidential elections. I can assume that every four years, masses gather up for an exciting event that takes almost three months, culminating on the election date and gradually disappearing a week or two later. It can be argued that in its modern sense, pervasive election should be the last episode of an ongoing political debate among citizens to demonstrate who has garnered most of the popular support. In Iran, however, it seems that presidential elections are somehow disconnected episodes of political activity by ordinary citizens. During this highly turbulent period, one could notice popular discussions going astray: talking points range from very fundamental issues to most superficial ones, as if there is only a limited three month period every four years to review politics, just to cast it aside after the election. Considering consecutive elections, this phenomenon becomes more significant: people change sides very easily during the rest period between elections. That could hardly happen in a place where political affiliations are continually constructed over time.

In my opinion, popular participation in presidential elections of Iran is more like a ritual custom, bringing excitements of a popular drama to an event whose functions are more social rather than political. This theory could explain some of the irregularities noticed in the political behavior of Iranians, including those explained in above paragraphs.

The new Reality Drama is up again, scheduled to reach its peak on 14 June 2013. Don’t get surprised if a majority of Iranians vote for a conservative candidate this time. That wouldn’t mean they betrayed Green Movement formed after 2009 elections. They have just got past the previous episode.

P.S. This piece raises a valid question: what about massive protests after 2009 presidential elections? I will explain my view on that in another post.