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July 29, 2003

People's Demands: Present
Babak Seradjeh  [info|posts]

an iranian student protesting the banning of reformist newspapers This is a follow-up to People's Demands: Retrospect.

The word `people' has been so much abused by those on Iran's political stage that it has no significance for me personally any more. But I'll have to bear it. Here I'll argue that people's demands in Iran are not clear even to themselves as a whole.

There are virtually no free polls in Iran today which could be used to gauge as well as give voice to people's demands as a consequence of drastic measures the conservatives, who control key power nodes, have taken to suppress the freedom of speech. The source for extracting information on the demands of the majority in Iran is thus restricted to occasional singular events that give the Islamic Republic a semi-democratic look: elections.

Two figures have drawn attentions in the past few years: participation rate and the percentage of votes reformists received. Take the last five elections held in Iran. The first one, on May 23, 1997 (2 Khordad), led to Khatami's first landslide win. The turnout was close to 90%, and Khatami gained about 70% of the votes. The next three, the city and the parliamentary elections in 2000, and the presidential elections in 2001 all witnessed huge participation rates, and a high percentage of votes going to reformists. The last one though, the city elections this past February was met with a very low turnout, reportedly 49% nation-wide and only 12% in the capital Tehran, where about one-sixth of the entire population lives. It resulted in the major defeat of the reformist candidates. In Tehran they lost 14 of the total 15 seats, all won by them in the previous election.

In the absence of polls and their detailed capabilities, elections have served as probes of public opinion. This has imposed a severe obstacle in seeing through Iran's already foggy view: they are widely open to interpretation. For instance, while many, including reformists, interpreted the huge turnouts as a popular desire for reforms from within, some, mostly hard-liners, declared it as a sign of people's trust in the current system. (Take a look at this media report by BBC in the aftermath of the reformists' win in the parliamentary election. Read the actual quotes; I belive the reporter has a mistaken understanding: how could he call Kayhan a reformist newspaper? Kayhan is one of the harshest of all hardliner newspapers. The quotes should be read with this in mind.) Since there is no other effective way of verifying or falsifying either of these two statements based on the election results itself, the fate of the argument is left to the unchallenged share of power each of the parties enjoy and their political impudence.

Taking elections as means of probing public opinions suffers, in Iran, from yet another shortcoming: liquid political agendas. When it comes to matters of general political interest, candidates usually have no clear agenda that outlines their political goals. They usually use ambiguous terms like `democracy', `prosperity' or `construction'. Khatami's celebrated motto in his first campaign, as I remember, was `A better tomorrow for all Iranians.' With such undetailed, unprogrammed agendas it is really hard to figure out what real demands the people who voted for them have, except for better lives.

I believe that reformists' inability in dealing with this situation is the main reason the reform movement has come to a halt. Khatami knocked his reform programme dead as soon as he failed to take proper action against conservatives' bold moves to further infringe the freedom of speech by banning newspapers, jailing writers and journalists, calling off a reformist Parliament's motion to loosen the press law through direct interference of the Supreme Leader, and finally shutting down the polling institutes and imprisonment, on charges of espionage, of their managers who had reported a popular desire in restoring relationships with the US.

A concerted and firm effort to extend the freedom of speech and the press is the missing loop in Iran's reform movement. People have not gained any effective ways of expressing themselves, have no clear idea of what they want any more and thus have become hopeless. The voiceless popular movement is choking—has choked?—on itself.

michelle at July 30, 2003 11:58 AM [permalink]:

What is the best hope for increasing freedom of expression? Are LA radio stations helping or hurting? Any creative ideas?

Kaveh at July 30, 2003 12:22 PM [permalink]:

I am not sure of that. In fact I'll suspect anything that has to do even a little with the monarchists, and the LA bunch has a lot to with them. Seriously, I think radios are pretty much a WWII propaganda phenomena. They are strictly un-interactive and are not responsible about what they say (unlike papers that have to publish replies and denials). Well, they are still good for cultural issues.

Newsapers are still probably the best effective way of political communication in Iran. The government shuts them down on a monthly basis but people are always on the look for new ones. Their online editions are also very popular among the Iranians abroads which makes them a more attractive choice for me at least.

BHS at July 31, 2003 04:55 PM [permalink]:

The LA-based TVs are not promising. As Kaveh said, they are controlled by intolerant symapthizers (in the least) of monarchy, and do not really help the freedom of speech the way they handle their callers, for instance.

Newspapers are good but not enough, the way they are treated in Iran. For them to be effective they need an atmosphere of quiet that is lacking. The process of new ones replacing the banned ones keeps themm alive, sort of, but disrupts their continuity in a seriously fatal way.

Internet, I think, can be used more effectively, to spread the word of dissent and wisdome, the key ingredient in a reform movement that could get covered under a lot of emotional dust in times of pressure. Thinking about free polls the other day, I imagined with the magic of instant publishing anyone can now conduct a more or less quiet but effective survey into the minds of people in a certain neibourhood and let others know about and spread it very fast. The hardliners are now waking to this reality and are trying to mend this last gap of their net of power in an internationally unconspicuous way.