Reading through the various news outlets covering this week’s Iranian election, one gets the sense that elections in Iran are not so different from the ones we regularly endure in North America.
Two hours after polls closed across the country on Friday, Iran’s state-run news agency declared that incumbent Mahmoud Ahmedinejad had won the election. Ahmedinejad’s main rival, Mir Hussein Moussavi, immediately voiced concerns about voting “irregularities”, and declared that he, in fact, was the winner. Moussavi also accused the government of continuing to limit his campaign’s ability to reach younger and more progressive voters by shutting down web sites and text-messaging services (the government instituted [but later removed] a nation-wide facebook block a few weeks ago). Ahmedinejad, in turn, accused Moussavi’s supporters of spreading false rumors by way of text messaging.
The similarities, however, come to an end when news reports mention a certain Ayatollah Khamenei and his role in the election. Iran is, after all, a two-tiered “Islamic Republic”, and the influence of its religious leaders – even in a (technically) secular election – is tremendous. Though I won’t bore you guys with a breakdown of Iran’s political system, It goes without saying that when the person who appoints Iran’s armed forces commanders, radio/tv network directors, major religious institution heads, national security (and foreign affairs) council leaders and chief judges says something, people are going to listen.
Though Iran’s Supreme Leader (Khamenei) has not officially endorsed one candidate, many commentators have said that his description of an ‘ideal candidate’ in recent statements has most closely described President Ahmedinejad (who has, among other things, called for a return to the ‘piousness’ of the Islamic revolution). This ultimately begs the question of whether this election (which, after initial counting, seems to be going to Mr. Ahmedinejad) is really a democratic one.
Though I’m sure we will still see some surprises this weekend (Mr. Moussavi doesn’t seem like he’s going to give up any time soon), it might be interesting to note that Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, “a powerful cleric and former president who heads the Assembly of Experts” (NYT) has accused Ahmedinejad of threatening the stability of the state. Regardless of what Mr. Ahmedinejad might say, the incumbent does not have a monopoly on religious support in this election, and many younger Iranians’ interpretation of the importance of the Iranian revolution does not seem to be an exclusively religious one.
This brings up the yet larger question of democracy and its compatibility with religion in Iran, the Middle East and the world in general. Do endorsements from religious figures and institutions unnecessarily skew election results, or does religion (an integral part of Iranian society) simply add another important dimension to the democratic process?
EDIT: For those interested, Noah Feldman discussed this in a wonderful TED talk a few years ago.