The results are in and against all predictions in Western capitals, Hassan Rouhani, the most moderate of the six candidates, will be the next President of Iran.
We are now seeing the rest of the world scrambling for reactions to an outcome it did not expect – United States, “cautiously optimistic”; Israel dismissive – “Iran will remain the number one threat to the Jewish State”; “warm congratulations” from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
However, the result speaks as much about Iran’s democratic processes as it does about the man who won. Before the result Western observers had been predicting that regardless of the people’s wishes, the eventual winner would be someone hand-picked by the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: Someone like Saeed Jalili who during the election stated that “all our attention should be devoted to listening to what our [Supreme] leader wants”.
Or Ali Akbar Velayati who proclaimed his greatest strength as president would be his willingness to unquestionably obey whatever the Supreme Leader told him to do.
Not that Rouhani has ever said he wants to overturn the Islamic Republic, but he is expected to insist on his constitutional role as the representative of the sovereignty of the people, while the Supreme Leader is the representative of the sovereignty of God. In this case the people have spoken and it is to be hoped that God, through his representative on earth, is listening.
The so-called Iranian experts, who almost universally got this election result wrong, are now saying that Rouhani’s victory marks the beginning of a fracturing of the Islamic Republic. I would suggest that instead it shows its enduring strength.
The West has been too quick to dismiss Iran’s democracy as a sham, pointing to the 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as an example of a flawed process – a result they claimed was stolen from Ahmadinejad’s rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi. In doing so they were parroting the words of Mousavi himself who, before a single vote was counted, claimed that he had “inside information” that he had won by a large margin, and then when the result went against him, cried fraud.
In an On Line Opinion article on 27 July 2009 I wrote that Ahmadinejad had won the election, perhaps not by as much as the 63 per cent of the vote which was officially declared, but handily enough. He had done so by some good old-fashioned pork barrelling in the provinces, which had left Mousavi’s support base in the capital isolated. Mousavi then called his Teheran supporters into the streets, which made excellent television around the world, but was never interpreted as it should have been – the petulance of a bad loser.
This time all the candidates agreed not to make any statements until the votes were counted and final results officially declared. Impressively, they all stuck to the bargain and although Rouhani just crept over the 50 per cent of the vote that negated a run-off against the next successful candidate, everyone accepted the outcome – including Ayatollah Khamenei who sent his congratulations.
The fact is there are many in the West who are loath to recognise that Iran does have a functioning democracy and the will of the people can be made known through it. Rouhani’s main supporter and former president, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani described the poll as “the most democratic in the world”, a bit of hyperbole perhaps, but nevertheless more accurate than some of the accusations thrown at it by Iranian exiles and the commentariat in Jerusalem.
So where did Rouhani get his majority and what can we expect of his presidency over the next four years? For a start Rouhani is almost as wily a politician as the man he is going to replace. He is a cleric, and that goes down well among the conservative peasantry in the provinces. Then he has carefully cultivated an image as a moderate reformer, which won him sufficient votes in the larger cities, including Teheran.
Expect him to continue to push gently for a continuation of reforms such as the law that created an election commission to oversee the conduct of the 2013 poll, and the closure of the worst of the secret police detention centres, which have often been the scenes of brutality and torture - reforms which, incidentally, were supported and presided over by Ahmadinejad.
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