Too late for a reformist momentum?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

After a turbulent start, the Iranian presidential election race has entered a new phase. Now, the presidential candidates are aiming their slogans and promises at Iran’s youth. But is it too little, too late to create a reformist momentum?

Over the last two weeks, Mir-Hossein Musavi – the candidate for which Khatami stepped down a month ago – has received support from major organizations on the ‘reformist wing’. The Combatant Clerics Coalition (the main ‘reformist’ clerical body), The Participation Front (the main ‘reformist party’), The Organization of the Islamic Revolution’s Mujahedin (a key political group) and the central committee of The Third Wave (a pro-Khatami movement) have all announced that they will back Musavi in his bid for the presidency (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4). Furthermore, the ‘centrist’ Executives of Reconstruction Party – which is aligned with the powerful Ayatollah Rafsanjani – has also declared its support for Musavi (even though Rafsanjani himself has not yet voiced support for any candidate).

What may be quite important in terms of factional battles is that Musavi apparently received the blessing of most marâje‘-e taqlid (Sources of Emulation: the highest ranking Shiite clerics) during a recent trip to Qom, Iran’s religious center. According to a pro-Musavi weblog, the state-media was ‘shocked’ by this show of support, and have tried to downplay its importance. It seems as if the marâje‘-e taqlid have refused to meet Ahmadinejad as a group. The fact that they met with Musavi can thus be seen to indicate their support for change in government.

Despite the recent string of statements, the support is not unanimous. A key member from the Combatant Clerics Coalition, Mohammad-‘Ali Abtahi, has joined Musavi’s competitor, Mehdi Karubi, as an advisor. Abtahi has stated that other members of the Coalition will vote for Karubi. The Executives of Construction Party may support Musavi, but its secretary-general, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, announced his support for Karubi several months ago. In some ‘reformist’ circles there have been talk of bringing in former interior minister Abollah Nuri as a ‘real reformist’ candidate instead of Musavi. Even in the main ‘reformist’ party, Moshârekat, key members – Khatami’s brother Mohammad-Reza and leading theoretician Sa‘id Hajjariyan – had called for a new candidate, but in the end, they accepted the party’s endorsement of Musavi. In other words, the many declarations of support are not indicative of a universal consensus on the ‘reformist wing’.

In any case, this show of support is far from enough to secure a ‘reformist’ victory. Apart from the fact that the ‘reformist’ vote is split between several candidates, the major obstacle is that the young segment and the politically active students remain hesitant and unconvinced of the ‘reformist’ nature of Musavi – and his ability to change anything. Consequently, Musavi has started currying favor with this segment. A couple of weeks ago, he announced that if he were to become president, he would dismantle the so-called Guidance Patrols (gasht-e ershâd), also called religious police in Western media. These patrols enforce Islamic moral values and dress codes among young Iranians and are hugely unpopular with the less conservative youth. Recent years have seen the implementation of the ‘Social Safety Program’ under which patrols periodically launch harsh campaigns against ‘morally deprived’ young Iranians. By announcing that he will stop these patrols, Musavi is trying to win young votes. Karubi – who has also promised cash handouts to all young Iranians if he is to win – has jumped on this wagon, and announced similar promises. He has threatened to go to Khamene‘i if the patrols continue their harassment of young Iranians.

However, such promises seem like nothing but hot air. Indeed, it is – as pointed out yesterday by Iranian judicial authorities – not up to the president to make such a decision. A judiciary spokesman stated that the patrols are ‘interminable’ and the Disciplinary Forces (niru-ye entezâmi) Commander Ahmadi-Moqaddam blasted Musavi and Karubi, warning that such statements are unacceptable. Nonetheless, Musavi continues his efforts to attract young voters. He has stated that he knows the young and their trends better than any other candidate; that ‘we should trust the youth’ just as in the early years of the revolution; that confronting the young only leads to ‘pessimism’; and that instead of ‘authoritarian methods’, the state must work with cultural means to reach out to the youth.

Musavi is also playing his ‘artist card’ now. An architect and painter (you can see some of his works here), he enjoys some support among Iran’s artists (such as the famous film-maker Dariush Mehrjui), who are hoping for a more tolerant government and less censorship in the future. In a meeting yesterday, reformist politicians praised Musavi as a liberal figure who had defended artistic freedoms even in the early days of revolutionary fervor and cultural revolution. Musavi is not a man who will put up ‘barbed wire to prevent a flood’, one speaker stated, referring to the wave of cultural products flooding the globalized world and, consequently, also Iran. Such statements come at a time when Internet is more widespread and popular in Iranian society than ever; and at a time when the Revolutionary Guards have announced a cyber war on illegal websites.

Thus, Musavi is trying to cash in on the more ‘liberal’ image as an intellectual and artist. Furthermore, we will undoubtedly see more of Musavi’s wife in the coming months. Zahra Rahnavard is a scholar, writer and artist in her own right, and has recently criticized the discrimination of women in Iran.

As I have elaborated on earlier, Musavi is presenting himself as a cross-factional candidate. Since my last post on the topic, this has become even more apparent. Alongside ‘reformist’ statements such as the above on the patrols, Musavi has also stated that he will not work with anyone who tries to ‘break the framework’ of the political system; he has repeatedly stated that Iran must return to the revolutionary path; and he has avoided oppositional figures, pro-democracy student gatherings and visits with the families of political prisoners. Nonetheless, the praise for Musavi, which we have heard from some moderate conservatives the last couple of months, has yet to translate into direct support. Even if conservatives who are fed up with Ahmadinejad should actually support Musavi in his bid for president (and they might do this secretly, a ‘reformist’ has stated), this flirt with conservative forces will probably alienate an important constituency: the politically aware students.

As an example, the pro-Musavi website Qalam recently featured an article with the headline ‘Universities must take steps towards reaching the goals of pure Islam’. The article carried statements by a person identified as head secretary of Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat (The Office for Consolidating Unity), which is the main pro-democracy student body. However, this was the secretary of a breakaway pro-conservative group known as the Shiraz Branch – and not the original group that helped Khatami to power in 1997. Pro-democracy students were infuriated that Qalam brought this article and on various student blogs and websites, the conclusion was drawn that there is no difference in Musavi and Ahmadinejad.

It is the apparent similarity with Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and ideological outlook that is Musavi’s Achilles Heel. Musavi will not be able to change his image without losing that same quality that makes him more acceptable to the ruling conservative elite than Khatami. Half-baked promises of removing the religious police from the streets will not satisfy the politically aware students and young Iranians. There seems to be a feeling that Musavi is either no better or different than Ahmadinejad, or maybe afraid to speak his mind. Furthermore, when it is rumored that even such central figures as Hajjariyan doubts Musavi’s ‘reformism’, it can come as no surprise that others can have a hard time imagining Musavi as a new Khatami.

‘Reformist’ blogger Bahman recently wrote:
“In my opinion, Musavi is not a reformist, just as Karubi isn’t either. Musavi is not representative of what we have fought for and talked about for the last twelve years [since Khatami’s presidential victory in 1997]. Musavi is one of the high-ranking executives of the political system who happens to believe more than most (maybe even most of all) in the political system, who wants to protect it and who wants to make it work efficiently. He sees the political system as a popular system: not in its modern sense but rather in the sense of the Ummah, or Muslim community. That is, to him, ‘the people’ are those he imagines as the real owners of the revolution and the political system.”

Indeed, if Musavi (or Karubi) were to win – would they be able to change anything? This ubiquitous question was formulated in an interesting way recently. Akbar A‘lami – former MP for Tabriz and an outspoken critic of Ahmadinejad’s government – has questioned the ‘reformist’ label for Musavi and Karubi. A‘lami himself has announced he will run for president, but it is doubted whether the unelected vetting body, Guardian Council, will admit him into the race. During his recent campaigning, which has received little if any attention from state-run media, A‘lami has invited Musavi and Karubi to an open public debate. In this invitation, A‘lami asked each candidate what he would do if he was to become president and was faced with a ‘state decree’ from The Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i?

This question is crucial as it reveals the impotence of any president in opposing these decrees issued every now and then by the Leader. The opaque yet overshadowing and unhindered power of the Leader is indeed a core problem of the Iranian political system. It is also yet another reason why some find the outfall of the presidential elections unimportant – and thus, participation in the election process pointless.

This is not to say that the presidency is a post completely devoid of significance. The Iranian votes have proved time and again to reflect important shifts in public opinion. Constrained as he might be, the president is nonetheless Iran’s face abroad and a representative of a significant segment and interest in society. Yet it becomes increasingly difficult for voters to discern the differences between candidates’ political outlook – and correspondingly harder for Iranian politicians to persuade the population to believe in the system and the power of their votes in bringing about change.

With less than two months left before the presidential elections, something close to a miracle – or at least, a fundamental change of strategy – is needed. If not, Ahmadinejad will most probably win with a slight majority and continue into his second round as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

[more to follow ...]

UPDATE

Just to prove my point that the reformists are desperately addressing the Iranian youth these days:

Mehdi Karubi is reported to have visited a group of pop musicians, including the rapper Sâsi Mânkan (!). This unprecedented move is shocking since the hugely popular underground music, and in particular Persian Hip Hop, is effectively outlawed. As I have commented earlier, the political system sees Hip Hop as a threat to society. It will be interesting to see if state-run media will pick up on this story!

5 Responses to Too late for a reformist momentum?

  1. Pingback: Too late for a reformist momentum?

  2. Rasmus-jaan, this is some of the best Iran-news watching in English that I have come across. Kudos and keep it up! Obviously Musavi is trying to out-Ahmadinejad Ahmadinejad, and perhaps the middle classes find that distasteful. But it proves to me that he is serious about running and winning the election by courting a re-alignment of political factions, as opposed to Karubi who puts himself forward as the perennial protest vote. Also, you don’t go into it here, but another schism within the political sphere is on economic lines – how much privatization to actually push through, to whose benefit, and how to use the levers of the Iranian state to counter the massive social dislocation that some (poorer) sectors of the population have undergone alongside Iran’s creeping liberalization. MPs in the majles are calling for increased tariffs to support Iran’s dairy production, for instance, and Musavi came out in support of it, if I am not mistaken. That kind of discourse may not appeal to the liberal democrats, but it does to those who plan on voting. Anyway – I look forward to your future entries. Keyvan-Baltimore, USA

  3. Dear Keyvan,
    Thanks a lot!
    You’re absolutely right: the question of economy is very interesting and something I hope to find the time to look into in the near future. I remember Musavi has stated that he is ‘neither socialist nor liberalist’ – interesting to see how we would shape his actual policy. I stumbled across this article, which I haven’t read yet, but seems to outline Musavi’s economic policies:
    http://alef.ir/1388/index2.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=43876&Itemid=99999999&pop=1&page=0

    All the best,
    Rasmus, NYC

  4. Hi Rasmus!

    It was long time we had not hear from you after Sharq days…

  5. Dear Ali,
    So nice to hear from you – I will write you an e-mail later today!
    All the best,
    Rasmus.

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