Press restrictions and cronyism mean a high turnout at the Iranian polls tells us little about what most people really want
Iranians are voting today to elect a parliament, and both the country’s leaders and the world media are obsessed with turnout.
Iran’s top clerics, for their part, are desperate to report a vigorous vote to project an image of strength and stability as their showdown with the west fast approaches. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose supporters are involved in a face off with allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for control of parliament, called on Iranians to turnout and “smack the face” of the nation’s enemies. For days, the state media has broadcast a steady beat of nationalistic encouragement, suggesting to Iranians that not voting is akin to laying down a red carpet for foreign invasion. Even in the poll’s early hours, state-run news websites were running breathless headlines about stations running out of ballot papers.
The world’s attention is similarly fixed on whether Iranians can be coaxed out to vote. Analysts and news stories note that reasonable turnout will boost the regime’s confidence, showing it to be – despite the increasing toll of sanctions – still adept at marshalling supporters and shaping public opinion. The regime has successfully convinced Iranians to blame the United States and Israel for sanctions, the thinking goes, and decent voter participation may underscore just how much goodwill the west has lost in Iran.
But this preoccupation with turnout is wrong-minded. To start with, the authorities’ tight restrictions on reporting are preventing journalists from openly gauging the scale of participation. Journalists are being bussed into selected polling stations. Stories written by resident correspondents are worded so cautiously as to be virtually meaningless. Of course the regime’s staunch supporters will turn out and regale reporters with why it’s their duty to vote, and people in the provinces will honestly admit to voting to ensure further state handouts. But what about the silent near-majority – the millions and millions of apathetic middle class, urban voters? The reality is that we have no real reported sense of what is transpiring in Iran today.
That leaves us with the government’s numbers. Back when the regime’s threshold for vote manipulation was not quite so high, the world took its turnout numbers at face value. When Iranians turned out in astonishing numbers to elect the reformist Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and again in 2001 (turnout for his first victory was nearly 90%), their participation was taken as fact even in the halls of the US state department. The figures were remarkable, and Iran soon came to be regarded as a fledgling experiment in Islamic democracy.
None of that plausibility applies to Iran today. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s contested 2009 election – when allegations of vote rigging led millions of Iranians into the street to demand “Where is my vote?” – has forever tainted confidence in Iran’s electoral process. Regardless of whether the interior ministry, which runs the elections, announces turnout to be 60 or even 70%, will those figures reflect anything true or illuminating about Iran? Iranian politicians used to mock Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former president, for his farcical 99.9% victories. But today they are becoming the smoke and mirrors leaders of the Middle East, forever staging productions before a weary people.
We would all like to gauge where Iran is headed, and make better sense of what Iranians think. Do they blame their government for their deteriorating quality of life, or do they resent the west for the sanctions it is inflicting? Do they feel besieged as Iranians, or believe there is anything their leaders can do to steer the nation away from conflict? As Iran’s confrontation with the world grows more protracted and grave by the day, it is tempting to look to numbers and election results as a barometer of something. But it would be a mistake to read anything into whatever turnout figures Tehran releases today. They will offer us, at best, a shaded and partial truth.
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from Azadeh Moaveni