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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