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”.
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.
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.