Iran: From authoritarian elections to demands for change

Authoritarian elections might strengthen democratization from below. The political experience of voting and formulating interests can lead to demands for change and democracy.

The dra­mat­ic ten­sions inside the Iran­ian Islam­ic Republic’s struc­ture became obvi­ous some weeks before the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 2009. The con­fronta­tions between dif­fer­ent Islamist can­di­dates on nation­al TV indi­cat­ed a deep polit­i­cal cri­sis for the Iran­ian nation. As we came clos­er to Elec­tion Day, it became clear­er that this elec­tion was not like ear­li­er elec­tions. The huge sup­port to the demand for change in nation­al and inter­na­tion­al poli­cies made me believe that the elec­tion of June 2009 will bring Iran to a new stage, and cre­ate new pow­er rela­tions regard­less of the elec­tion result.

Lat­er, in Novem­ber 2009 when elec­tion fraud had shocked me, like many oth­ers, I came across the arti­cle “Com­pet­i­tive Clien­telism in the Mid­dle East” writ­ten by Ellen Lust. Lust in this arti­cle tries to draw a pic­ture of the rela­tion between author­i­tar­i­an elec­tions and democ­ra­ti­za­tion process­es in the Mid­dle East. She claims that “Elec­tions in author­i­tar­i­an regimes [of the Mid­dle East] not only fail to push the tran­si­tion process for­ward, but tend to strength­en the incum­bent regime” (Lust, 2009, p. 131). She argues that in author­i­tar­i­an regimes elec­tions are the mech­a­nisms to cre­ate com­pe­ti­tion for access to the lim­it­ed state resources. By this, she claims that the author­i­tar­i­an elec­tions reduce demands for change, and cre­ate a “Com­pet­i­tive Clientelism”.

Fra protestene i Iran i juni 2009.

Fra protestene i Iran i juni 2009.

Lust uses this con­cept to describe a mech­a­nism where the vot­ers will reduce their demands to inter­ests which fit in the state’s lim­it­ed resources. In oth­er words, she con­sid­ers that vot­ers would sup­port the par­ties or groups which can coop­er­ate with the regime to deliv­er goods to them. Fur­ther, she argues that author­i­tar­i­an elec­tions only dur­ing eco­nom­ic or polit­i­cal cri­sis can lead to demands for change.

This, in my point of view, con­tra­dicts with Lust’s descrip­tion of vot­ers in “Com­pet­i­tive Clien­telism”. How could vot­ers in author­i­tar­i­an elec­tions demand change (which would lead to democ­ra­ti­za­tion) if they will only act based on their lim­it­ed inter­ests? Is it the polit­i­cal cri­sis that cre­ates a con­di­tion for demand­ing change? Or does democ­ra­ti­za­tion from below cre­ate a polit­i­cal cri­sis, which in the next step might pro­duce the con­di­tions for grow­ing demands for democ­ra­cy on the surface?

Although I find “Com­pet­i­tive Clien­telism” very use­ful in help­ing to under­stand the Iran­ian pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 2009, I felt the need for some fur­ther dis­cus­sion on the way vot­ers and author­i­tar­i­an elec­toral “games” were described by Lust. I use the con­cept of game in author­i­tar­i­an elec­tions to indi­cate that on the one hand these elec­tions seem to be sim­u­la­tion of selec­tions, and on the oth­er hand these kinds of elec­tions are more com­pli­cat­ed than sim­ple selections.

As Lust also gave atten­tion to, some vot­ers in author­i­tar­i­an regimes would not accept the rules of the game and would refuse to vote. But some of the oth­ers who par­tic­i­pate in author­i­tar­i­an elec­tions would, in my point of view, learn the rules of the author­i­tar­i­an elec­toral games.

Islamist oppo­si­tion groups had to use the elec­tion sys­tem to gain power

In this arti­cle, I will con­sid­er whether knowl­edge about the game and par­tic­i­pa­tion in the game (in com­bi­na­tion with many oth­er fac­tors) would cre­ate a demand for change from below. This gives mean­ing to why author­i­tar­i­an elec­tions only in a peri­od of eco­nom­ic or polit­i­cal cri­sis can lead to a demand for democ­ra­ti­za­tion. Here, I will use the Islam­ic Repub­lic of Iran as an exam­ple to indi­cate first­ly the way vot­ers as polit­i­cal actors learn about their posi­tions in the author­i­tar­i­an elec­toral games. By this, I mean that vot­ers would find a pow­er (even if it is lim­it­ed) in the game. Sec­ond­ly, I am inter­est­ed in indi­cat­ing that the elec­tion sys­tem would cre­ate a Self for vot­ers which con­tra­dicts with the prin­ci­ples of author­i­tar­i­an regimes (by the con­cept of Self I mean that the expe­ri­ence of vot­ing cre­ates an indi­vid­ual under­stand­ing of being able to choose one’s own rep­re­sen­ta­tive). In oth­er words the prac­tice of vot­ing cre­ates an indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence that might be the basis of demand­ing democ­ra­cy. This I have called in this arti­cle democ­ra­ti­za­tion from below.

When elections in political crises do not lead to change

Not all author­i­tar­i­an elec­tions in peri­ods of polit­i­cal cri­sis lead to demand for change. Since 1979 a new sys­tem of theoc­ra­cy with some demo­c­ra­t­ic fea­tures has pre­vailed in Iran. On the one hand leg­isla­tive and demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions such as the par­lia­ment have been estab­lished, and on the oth­er hand Velyat‑e Faqih, the leader of the Rev­o­lu­tion, sub­or­di­nate the peo­ple’s will by his ulti­mate rights (Eshke­vari, Tap­per, & Mir-Hos­sei­ni, 2006).

Between 1979 and 1989 there were con­tin­u­ous fights among Islamist groups and non-Islamist par­ties in Iran. While the Iran­ian peo­ple fought in bat­tles with Iraq (in the 1981–89 war), rad­i­cal Islamists estab­lished their pow­er in the coun­try by ter­ror and impris­on­ing of polit­i­cal oppo­si­tions. Dur­ing ’79 to ’89 many author­i­tar­i­an elec­tions were held, where peo­ple were sup­posed to choose select­ed can­di­dates as pres­i­dent and par­lia­ment mem­bers. Dur­ing these 10 years of inter­nal and exter­nal polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty, none of the author­i­tar­i­an elec­tions led to a demand for change.

There should be many rea­sons for that. Vot­ers might not have seen the elec­tion sys­tem as author­i­tar­i­an. Or maybe elec­tions were not under­stood as a cor­rect way to change pow­er, since the elec­tions were not used by Islamists to sta­bi­lize their pow­er. This also means that vot­ers could not see their pow­er in the elec­tion system.

Learning how to play the game!

In 1997 when the first post-rev­o­lu­tion gen­er­a­tion was ready to step onto the polit­i­cal stage by tak­ing part in elec­tions, there had already been some demon­stra­tions at uni­ver­si­ties against the gov­ern­ment. Youth, who were unhap­py with the indi­vid­ual restric­tions the gov­ern­ment had placed on them, sup­port­ed Moham­mad Khata­mi in the elec­tion of 1997. Khata­mi sup­port­ed peace­ful rela­tion­ships with West­ern coun­tries, democ­ra­cy, indi­vid­ual and civ­il free­dom. “Iran for all Ira­ni­ans” was one of his most known slo­gans in the elec­tion of ’97. On June 12th 1997, 79 per­cent of eli­gi­ble vot­ers par­tic­i­pat­ed in the elec­tion and by almost 70 per­cent of the votes cast Khata­mi was elect­ed as the new pres­i­dent of Iran. The new gen­er­a­tion of Iran was not the only attribute of the elec­tion. The Islamist groups that had been exclud­ed from the pow­er­ful insti­tu­tions of Iran had to mobi­lize peo­ple to reach the insti­tu­tions. In oth­er words, the Islamist oppo­si­tion groups had to use the elec­tion sys­tem to gain power.

Vot­ers see them­selves more as insiders

I believe it is cru­cial to ask what mobi­lized peo­ple. What were the vot­ers’ inter­ests? Can I claim that the speech­es on democ­ra­cy, indi­vid­ual and civ­il free­dom mobi­lized vot­ers? If yes, then I would argue that there already exist­ed a huge demand for change and democ­ra­ti­za­tion from below in the soci­ety. In oth­er words, the exclud­ed Islamist groups and vot­ers used each oth­ers inter­ests to reach their own inter­ests. This is what I want to call learn­ing how to play the game. After twen­ty years of author­i­tar­i­an elec­tions, vot­ers not only know the rules of the game, but also know more about the fights among Islamists. Since vot­ers can see the oppo­si­tions’ need for their sup­port, they rec­og­nize their pow­er in the elec­tion sys­tem. Vot­ers see them­selves more as insid­ers, rather than out­siders in the author­i­tar­i­an elec­toral games.

What moves in par­al­lel with learn­ing about the game is the expe­ri­ence of choos­ing one’s own rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Vot­ers not only assume that they have some pow­er in the game, but also they believe they are able to choose their rep­re­sen­ta­tives. We should also keep in mind that the Islam­ic Repub­lic of Iran is the result of a rev­o­lu­tion, where there was a belief that peo­ple should choose their gov­ern­ment. The dis­course of “nation’s will” was always pow­er­ful in the Islam­ic Repub­lic of Iran.

The experience of choosing own representatives

Pres­i­dent Ahmadinejad’s nation­al and inter­na­tion­al aggres­sive poli­cies mobi­lized youth, women and mid­dle class peo­ple to vote against him in 2009. The oppo­si­tion can­di­dates Mir Hos­sein Mousavi and Meh­di Kar­roubi accused Ahmadine­jad of mak­ing the Iran­ian peo­ple poor by his inter­na­tion­al poli­cies. Ahmadine­jad in return accused them of being corrupt.

Mousavi rep­re­sent­ed a coali­tion of dif­fer­ent Islamist oppo­si­tion groups with more reformist fea­ture. Kar­roubi is known as reformist cleric.

After a few debates among the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, it became clear that Ahmadine­jad was sup­port­ed by a gen­er­a­tion of Islamists that believed that the Islam­ic Repub­lic of Iran has cho­sen a wrong path. They want­ed a new start based on their own under­stand­ing of the Islam­ic revolution’s goals. The oppo­si­tion can­di­dates argued that Ahmadinejad’s inter­na­tion­al poli­cies are against the inter­ests of low­er-class fam­i­lies, and nation­al poli­cies are against the will of youth, women and mid­dle class families.

This video doc­u­ments in part the elec­tion cam­paign and mass protests:

A detailed dis­cus­sion on cor­rup­tion and inter­nal fights among Islamists nev­er were held open­ly in Iran before the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 2009. First­ly, this showed a huge polit­i­cal cri­sis among Islamists in the struc­ture of pow­er. Sec­ond­ly, it revealed that both the gov­ern­ment and the oppo­si­tion groups need­ed to mobi­lize the sup­port of the peo­ple to gain pow­er. The video footage tak­en some days before the elec­tion showed that Mousavi had mobi­lized many peo­ple across the coun­try. One of his best known slo­gans was “every Iran­ian is one cam­paign, every cam­paign is one leader”. While remain­ing silent could be an option for peo­ple, they chose to come to the streets and express their thoughts in ral­lies. This, among oth­er things, indi­cates that peo­ple believed that they could have impact on the sit­u­a­tion and might gain accep­tance for their demands.

Despite the mobi­liza­tion of the oppo­si­tion, Ahmadine­jad was announced as pres­i­dent for four more years. The post elec­tion protest which is today called “the green move­ment” start­ed from the day Ahmadine­jad was announced as elect­ed pres­i­dent. The first slo­gan of the protest was “Where is my vote?” which peo­ple shout­ed in the streets. Only a few days after the protest start­ed, demon­stra­tions changed the focus from elec­tion fraud to Vali‑e Faqih Khamenei. Such chants can be heard in this video:

If author­i­tar­i­an elec­tions were only a sys­tem of Com­pet­i­tive Clien­telism, then any polit­i­cal cri­sis in author­i­tar­i­an regimes would only lead to anoth­er author­i­tar­i­an elec­tion sys­tem. By this I mean that the lack of democ­ra­ti­za­tion from below would prob­a­bly not change an author­i­tar­i­an elec­tion sys­tem to democ­ra­cy in any polit­i­cal crisis.

Here I have argued that the para­dox­i­cal nature of the author­i­tar­i­an elec­tion cre­ates a Self that grows against author­i­tar­i­an ide­ol­o­gy. This is not the polit­i­cal or eco­nom­ic cri­sis cre­at­ing a con­di­tion for demands for change, but the demands for change that exists at the grass­roots lev­el. The demand for change can only lead to democ­ra­ti­za­tion, when the vot­ers know how to use their lim­it­ed pow­er in elec­toral games. These vot­ers who have start­ed to believe in their pow­er and for­mu­late inde­pen­dent demands (inde­pen­dent from the author­i­tar­i­an regime) know about the oppo­si­tions’ needs of sup­port and mobilization.

In this arti­cle I have focused on a type of rela­tion­ship between vot­ers and an author­i­tar­i­an elec­tion sys­tem that can lead to democ­ra­ti­za­tion. How­ev­er, I believe that inter­na­tion­al and glob­al forces should also be tak­en into con­sid­er­a­tion when we talk about the rela­tion between author­i­tar­i­an elec­tions and democ­ra­ti­za­tion. How can we talk about an author­i­tar­i­an regime, or any oth­er regime, exclud­ed from the rest of the world? Even if a regime tries hard to iso­late the nation from the world, there will always be some inter­na­tion­al rela­tions that have impact on author­i­tar­i­an regimes and also the way author­i­tar­i­an elec­tions are per­ceived among the voters.

The text on the poster says: "Our demand: Referendum again".

The text on the poster says: “Our demand: Ref­er­en­dum again”.


Lust, E. (2009). Com­pet­i­tive Clien­telism in the Mid­dle East. Jour­nal of Democ­ra­cy, Vol­ume 20, Num­ber 3, July 2009, pp. 122–135.

Eshke­vari, H. Y., Tap­per, R., & Mir-Hos­sei­ni, Z. (2006). Islam and democ­ra­cy in Iran: Eshke­vari and the quest for reform. Lon­don: I.B. Tauris.







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