By Yadullah Shahibzadeh
Regardless of their ideological orientation and political affiliation, millions of Iranians expect this Friday’s parliamentary election to verify their political stance. It is not the electoral results but the level of the election turnout that matters most. While the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khamanei tells the Iranian people that their participation in the election will deter foreign aggression against Iran, oppositional forces affiliated to the Reform and the Green movement, believe that people will stay away from the election. Since the disputed presidential election in 2009, politicians who led post-revolutionary governments for 25 years have argued that the Iranian political system loses its popular legitimacy if it does not implement its constitution fully. The former president, Mohammad Khatami, put forward three demands as precondition for oppositional forces’ electoral participation; release of all political prisoners, protection of freedom of speech and assembly by the government and finally, guarantees given by the government to hold free and fair election. None of these demands have been fulfilled. Fulfillment of the first demand would be interpreted as acknowledgment of a wrong and injustice done to all those who questioned the presidential election result. Realization of the second demand would unleash unprecedented criticism of the leader and the revolutionary guard for engineering the presidential election and oppressing street protesters. Finally, the third demand would have dismantled The Guarding Council which has been engineering the elections for the assembly of experts since the late 1980s. The Council in collaboration with the Revolutionary guard has also been engineering parliamentary and presidential elections since 2004.
Since the 1979-revolution, different types of oppositions have boycotted different elections to no avail. The Islamic Republic has held tens of elections and no boycott this far has forced it to change its course. The main problem with the oppositions that have boycotted previous elections in Iran was that they did not represent a political force. They might have represented hundreds of thousands of like-minded Iranians ideologically, but they could not touch them politically. That is why they did not contribute to spectacular political events such as 1997 presidential election which resulted in Mohammad Khatami’s take over and the emergence of the Reform movement in 1997. It is the same story with the 2009 presidential election, which resulted in the Green movement. Both political events were results of high turnout in elections. Those creating and leading these political events were the main founders of the Islamic Republic and its defenders from the revolution until the late 1980s. Now the main founders and defenders of the Islamic Republic who are excluded from political power look forward to a popular boycott of the Friday election. The former founders and defenders of the Islamic Republic claim that they will stay away from the election, but they do not ask people to do the same. They say it is up to the people to choose whether they vote or not. Do the advocates of the Reform and Green movement have an overwhelming popular base? Do the Iranian people care about what these politicians and activist think of the Friday-election and what they do on the Election Day? We cannot find a straight answer for these questions before the Election Day. Nevertheless, we can interpret signs indicative of people’s electoral attitude in the Election Day.
Iran is neither a democracy in which you can produce unbiased opinion polls nor a police state in which people cannot express their political views publically. Conservatives are in power and reformist individuals and supporters of the Green movement are prosecuted and imprisoned. But if you look at a number of the conservative websites you can see that over 80 % of the comments are in their favor of the Reform and Green movement.
Understanding of a recent cultural event in Iran may also be helpful to map the status of the Reform and Green movement and its level of popularity in Iran. A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) is a film that has touched hundreds of thousands of Iranians since last year. While the conservatives in power controlled street demonstration through repression and intimidation, people made, A Separation, the symbol of resistance and defended it against the Outcasts ( Ekhrajiha). The Outcast ridicules politicians and intellectuals who have advocated the Green movement and is directed by Masoud Dhenamaki one of the leaders of Ansar-e Hezbollah, a semi-official gang that attacked political and cultural gatherings disliked by conservatives in 1990s. The film had the total backing of the Ahmadinezhad government. Unfortunately for the Outcast, A Separation received one award after another. In Iranian newspapers, every word expressing admiration for A Separation has been followed by a word of condemning the Outcasts. Finally, A Separation received an Oscar for best foreign language film on 26th February. Almost all leading political figures engaged in the democratic struggle such as Mohammad Khatami, political prisoners, literary and artistic figures in Iran publicized their messages of congratulations to the writer-director Asghar Farhadi with explicit and implicit critique of the political situation in Iran. The most competent commentator of the Iranian cinema Parviz Davaiy said, A Separation is the culmination of Iranian cinema. How can a filmmaker make the culmination of Iranian cinema, while the conservatives in power have tried to control and privatize many aspects of the public sphere to prevent democratic ways of thinking, saying and acting in Iran? A separation must be the culmination of Iranian cinema since it does not allow any of its characters to judge other characters without showing his or her moral flaws and lack of knowledge of the situation that is a result of their obsession with their own private affairs.
Few months prior to the 2009 presidential election, students, political activists and artists gathered to persuade Khatami to stand as a candidate in the presidential election. A known Iranian actress was invited on stage to say her reasons as to why Khatami should stand as a presidential candidate. The actress said that in order to realize his previous promises which were the realization of the democratic demands of the Iranian people and in order to revive the hopes of those who have become disappointed with the political situation, Khatami should enter the presidential campaign. She got emotional in the middle of her speech and burst into tears but managed to say a few words. “I am asking you to enter the presidential campaign for the sake of small children and for the sake of those who do not want to leave their country,” while she was being watched thoughtfully by her husband who was sitting in the audience. Since last year, film critics around the globe talk about the intensity and greatness of the first scene in A Separation. In this scene the leading female character is asking for a divorce because her husband has reneged on his agreement to leave Iran for the sake of their daughter. The female character cannot imagine a bright future for her daughter in Iran. The actress who plays the character in the first scene is no other than Leila Hatami, the same actress who became emotional while asking Khatami to stand as a candidate in the 2009 presidential election and the words she uttered in this scene are the logical consequence of her statement in real life. Liela Hatami whose dream of democracy was shattered by the oppression that followed the 2009 presidential election takes the role of Simin in A Separation to care for her private affairs and defend her own and her druthers’ interests. What she does not know as Simin, the film character, is that when seeking private interests becomes a rule; her interests would collide with the interests of anyone and everyone surrounding her. The result would be the shattering of her private dreams as well as the life of others. A Separation is based on Leila Hatami’s shattered dream of democracy in Iran. However, she gets the opportunity to play in a film that is described by its writer-director as a democratic film, a film that free from dictatorial role of the director respects the equal rights of all its characters to express their views about their situation. When asked by a French journalist whether his film is political Farhadi replies that, his film is not political but he hopes that it is democratic. The film is as political as it is democratic because it is about the people who regardless of their social position and religious or cultural background created the most spectacular political event in the Middle East in 2009 but were going to lose their passion for politics and started to care for their private affairs. This political passion remained alive only in an Alzheimer father who cares for other things than his own wellbeing through two unfinished sentences which he manages to say throughout the film, “I want to buy newspapers” and asking his son; whether he knows that certain “Ali got married.” The son answers reluctantly; who is Ali? Meaning, who cares.
What has the content of this film and its universal success to do with the level of election turnout on Friday? This political and democratic film reminds millions of Iranians that politics and experience of democratic unity may prevent them to become obsessed with their private affairs and self-interests and thus unpredicted tragic consequences. Different characters in A Separation; young, old, middle class, poor, religious, secular, are all recognizable in pictures and video footages of the Green movement that in the eyes of many analysts of Iranian politics is the culmination of Iranian democratic politics. A Separation’s final achievement this week made the politicians, activists and political prisoners fighting for democracy in Iran more visible than before while conservatives including Ahmadinezhad and the leader remained silent on the subject. Fridays election will show whether the culmination of Iranian cinema in combination with the culmination of Iranian democratic politics persuade Iranians to stay away from the election or not. A Separation may persuade the Iranian people that their separation from the ballot boxes that persist on their inequality with those who grabbed political power by chance but keep it by force and engineered elections is the expressions of their unity.
Conservative in Iran claim that they know very well that it will be a low turnout in Tehran, but the turnout will be high outside Tehran and especially in smaller cities. This week, I visited the website of a major local newspaper in the province of Bushehr many times. It was full of news on A Separation but not a word about the Friday election.