Iran’s presidential election on 19 May saw, as we predicted, Hassan Rouhani was re-elected with 22 million votes, according to the regime’s figures. His conservative rival won around 16 million, while more than 17 million did not vote. All these figures were given by the regime without verification by independent observers. With no independent monitoring of the election, all figures must be treated with caution.
A genuine election?
It should be noted from the very beginning that this so-called election in Iran is quite different from most elections in bourgeois democracies. All candidates have to be vetted by the Guardian Council to ensure they are loyal to the Islamic system. Therefore, not only are Iranian elections currently held in the absence of any real opposition candidates, but sometimes even senior officials are excluded by the Guardian Council for political or factional reasons. For instance, Akbar Rafsanjani, one of the famous leaders of the Islamic movement and president for two terms between 1989 and 1997, was disqualified from running again in 2013, and this happened to another former president, Ahmadinejad, this year!
Following the controversial election in 2008 that led to the presidency of Ahmadinejad, his reformist opponents alleged that the election was rigged.
The Left, embodied in parties in exile, as well as activists inside the country, had no possibility of having any candidates approved and boycotted the election.
The election process
Since the Guardian Council ordinarily excludes any candidates from outside the regime, Rouhani competed with five other figures from within the ruling system that seized and monopolised power after the 1979 revolution.
Rouhani is one of the veterans of the Islamic movement. He comes next to the first circle of the clergy – comprising of Montazeri, Taleghani, Motahari, Rafsanjani and Beheshti – who helped Khomeini in founding the Islamic regime. Since the early years, Rouhani has had key positions in the armed forces and served as the head of the Supreme National Security Council. However, in 2000s, he tried to pose himself as a centrist figure between the Khamenei, who became Leader following Khomeini’s death, and the so-called more pragmatic Rafsanjani. In the previous election, Rouhani said “I am a lawyer not a colonel” to contrast himself with his then rival Tehran mayor Qalibaf, who had risen from the military.
Apart from Rouhani, his aide, Eshaq Jahangiri, also ran for the post but it was obvious from the beginning that he would withdraw from the race and endorse Rouhani. This was a smart tactic to gain more media time for campaigning because this time the campaigns were done through the state-run broadcast media. Another candidate, Mostafa Hashemitaba, a former minister and close to moderates, was not taken as a serious contender.
On the other side, conservative Baqer Qalibaf seemed to be the main rival of Rouhani. He was once a commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) – which is an ideological military force and separate from the regular army – but later tried to present himself as a more modern and fashionable politician. The other conservative candidate was a cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, who is notorious for his role in the mass execution of Iranian political prisoners in 1988. He has close ties with Leader Ali Khamenei and was recently appointed as the head of a huge financial and economic conglomerate working as a religious institution. The third conservative candidate was Mostafa Mirsalim, a former minister and member of the Islamic Coalition Party, which represents the big merchant bourgeoisie. With the withdrawal of Qalibaf in favour of Raisi a few days ahead of the election, it turned out to be a race between Rouhani and Raisi, and finally Rouhani beat Raisi.
Rouhani, who was supported by followers of Rafsanjani, who died a few months before the election, and pro-reform forces. His political platform mainly revolved around his major achievement – the nuclear deal with global powers and lifting crushing sanctions. He desires to extend the deal to other fields and to reach an agreement with the West on the regional and international issues, to pave the way for foreign investment. He thinks this is essential to find a solution to Iran’s economic and financial crisis, which has caused high unemployment. Civil and political liberties were just some flavour added to the main menu. He boasted about resisting the pressure by conservatives to exert stricter control on the internet. The reformists, who once had an almost radical political programme that was presented by former President Mohammad Khatami, gradually retreated from their programme and constrained themselves to Rouhani’s platform, which seemed to be the only way to prevent the conservative camp from winning.
Rouhani’s rival resorted to what was branded as “populism” by moderates and reformists. They promised to pay higher welfare benefits, including to the unemployed, to win over the poor, who have been victims of the economic crisis and recession over the last four years, and whose dreams of better living conditions after end of the nuclear dispute did not materialise. The promises by conservatives were obviously mere lies to win votes. They promised to create five million jobs in four years, which meant having an economic growth rate above 20 per cent!
But these promises failed to win over wider layers of society. Many people remembered that former president Ahmadinejad came to power after campaigning on “populist” slogans but failed to deliver on them. The majority today trusted promises of long-term policies aimed at economic restoration (though even this objective seems to be illusionary under present circumstances) rather than demagogical pledges of raising pensions and benefits.
Stage, ideology or different interests?
Some Iranians speculate that this so-called election, under a harsh theocratic regime, was just a cunning ruse to legitimise the regime, especially when it is under pressure from the West and its regional allies. Reformists usually attribute the infighting to the contrasting ideologies of the two main factions of the regime in dealing with its crisis. However, a deeper look at the situation may portray the situation better.
The Iranian regime that was founded on the ruins of the 1979 revolution is a caste around the office of Vali Faqih or the Supreme Leader, who exercises a quasi-Bonapartist power. This caste has its own organisation and enjoys access to huge resources of wealth. Alongside this is the regular bureaucratic system that comprises senior government officials and technocrats who are not only paid well but also have huge interests in banks and industries. Though the government has a major share in the economy over the last two decades we have been witnessing the emergence of a big private bourgeois stratum from inside of the regime. This is mainly composed of former bureaucrats and military personnel who have collected great wealth by ultra-exploitation of the working class.
What is happening now is the reshaping of the capitalist class and the fusion of that class and a faction of the government to function as its representative. The Iranian capitalist class favours a return to the global capitalist order and benefiting from playing in that playground.
This process requires a new balance of power between the caste led by Khamenei-IRGC and the bureaucracy led by Rouhani.
Working class – between a rock and a hard place
Despite the fine picture that the Iranian middle-class ideologists try to present, a future in which the regime chooses a new track in relation to world capitalism, life may not be much different for the working class. As Rouhani and his faction emphasise the need for foreign investment. But the only attraction for foreign capital is to ensure exploitation, through low wages and keeping the working class in a disorganised form. For this reason, the government took steps to amend the Labour Law, by which employers will be given a free hand to dismiss workers. There is no indication that the government will relax pressure on workers and will yield to some level of genuine trade unionism.
However, the working class tried to use the very narrow space that is widen during the election campaigns. This ranged from raising demands for the legalisation of independent labour organisations to campaigning on economic issues. Groups of people who deposited their money in private banks and had their funds extorted by these institutions, rallied almost every day in front of the parliament, the Central Bank and the Interior Ministry, where candidates registered and media correspondents were present. Many others who paid for buying a home under social housing schemes, but whose delivery has been delayed for years, also staged protest rallies.
A couple of days after the election, miners in the central Alborz mine staged a picket and blocked the road from Tehran to the northern provinces. Campaigns for the freedom of the jailed leader of the teachers’ trade union are ongoing, and small and big protests of workers take place almost daily.
This so-called election had a double-edged outcome. On the hand, the regime could display a show of legitimacy and preserve the status quo by persuading the people to vote for less repression and stability in a region wracked by war and bloodshed. On the other hand, different factions of the regime brought to fore people’s ever-growing demands for welfare and freedom. The regime will eventually pay a price when movements and struggles develop around these popular demands.
However, under the brutal repression of the system, connecting the protests to promote an independent movement, with a political perspective, remains a task for left activists and labour movement leaders.
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