Adrian Hamilton: Don't dismiss this democracy in Iran

The Iranian elections are for real, and getting more interesting as the date gets nearer
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The Independent Online

It's an indication of the way we look at the Middle East that any election the West feels it has helped along - in Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt for example - is greeted as a historic breakthrough, while the Iranian presidential election this Friday, with which we have no part, is being largely treated as artificial, soured by voter apathy and unlikely to change very much.

It's an indication of the way we look at the Middle East that any election the West feels it has helped along - in Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt for example - is greeted as a historic breakthrough, while the Iranian presidential election this Friday, with which we have no part, is being largely treated as artificial, soured by voter apathy and unlikely to change very much.

But the Iranian elections are for real, and getting more interesting as the date gets nearer. Of course they are not full and fair in the sense that the control of the candidates' list by the clerics excludes many of the potential reformist figures.

It is also perfectly true that, after the failures of the once heralded presidency of the modernising Mohammad Khatami, there is a sense of profound disillusionment among the young who make up more than half Iran's population, especially students. Khatami was elected by a landslide. By the time his second term finished this year, it seemed as if nothing could be achieved against the conservatism and obduracy of the clerics who oversee legislation and the electoral process through the Guardian Council.

But against this, the election process has allowed an open discussion of issues among some of the world's most sophisticated people. Writers may continue to be jailed, women to be kept back, but, as a recent demonstration by women activists and the extraordinary proliferation of bloggers have shown, they're not easily suppressed or reluctant to make their views known.

Nor is the list of eight candidates merely a choice between nonentities and cyphers. Since the Guardian Council reversed a previous ruling disallowing the reformist Mostafa Moin, the race has opened up. The various candidates have learned the professional campaigning arts of America. Even the main right-wing candidate, the former police chief Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, uses Western-style advertising. What was once seen as a easy ride for the past president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, on the first round, could now well go to a second round with a run-off between him and Moin.

It is easy enough to dismiss the electioneering as flawed and of limited effectiveness. It is even easier, and wrong, to see it solely in terms of what it can or cannot do to relations with the West, especially on the thorny issue of nuclear weaponry.

On that score, Washington seems to favour the candidature of Rafsanjani, the 72-year-old wheeler-dealer who knows his way round the corridors of Western power, wants a rapprochement with the US and has the experience to balance the fractious forces of clerical domination on the one hand and a vibrant, democratic structure on the other.

But that is not what could prove most exciting about these elections. The element of a proper race has given them some real electricity, while the differences between the candidates have opened up debate to an extent many had considered impossible only a month or so ago.

Western commentators, and governments, persist in seeing democracy as a system for regime change through the ballot box. But, as the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argues in an important new book, The Argumentative Indian, democracy is also about public debate and communal decision making, areas where non-Western societies, including Arab and Persian, have long and distinguished traditions.

It's impossible to know at this stage how much policy or regime change the elections will bring. It is possible that the winner will prove to be Rafsanjani, in which case you may get changes in foreign policy but not on domestic issues. The vote could, equally, show the young totally turned off from politics because it has achieved so little in the way of economic or social change.

That is the point, however. The election will show something of what is going on in Iran. Even the conservatives believe that some response to the popular mood of disenchantment with the government will have to be made. Hence, partly, the decision to restore Moin's candidature, and hence also the extent to which the regime has gone to encourage a high turnout.

The election won't necessarily produce the results the outside world wants. Iranians are most interested in the economy and the failure of high oil prices to do more to solve the problems of youth unemployment and widespread disparity of wealth. Not that different, in truth, from the voters of France and Holland. The rights of women, freedom of speech and even the place of the clergy in society all figure. But on external questions most Iranians remain resolutely nationalistic. Well over half the voters fully support Iran's nuclear ambitions, 46 per cent of them "strongly" so, according to the last opinion poll. Iraq and Israel hardly figure at all.

It's not the consequence of the election that matters so much as what it tells us about the mood, and the subsurface, of Iran. As in so many other parts of the Middle East, there is a generational change going on. It is more than quarter of a century since the revolution overthrew the Shah, and some 17 years since the end of the Iran-Iraq war. The young, and many of the old, want a different society now.

But if we want to understand and engage with these shifts and movements we need to listen to these elections, not merely impose our views and judgements on them.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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