Iranian politics took all of us by surprise again. While the election of Hassan Rowhani as the new president of Iran marks an important turning point in the factional rivalries and elite conflict in Iran, the process of the election also displayed a rather new model of oppositional politics in Iran. This new pragmatist model combines conventional methods of politics such as electoral participation with unconventional tactics such as street demonstrations and popular mobilization: Iranians seeking democratic change voted for Rowhani, whereas they also turned his campaign meetings to occasions for public display of their rather forbidden political demands for the first time since the 2009 brutal crackdown of Iran’s Green Movement.
What is indeed new about such expression of opposition is neither using methods of popular mobilization nor electoral participation for demanding democratic reforms alone, but their synthesis. When reformists took power in Iran by the landslide victory of Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 presidential election, their strategists identified ballot boxes as the main method of democratic reform. On multiple occasions, when students wanted to organize nation-wide protest events, reformist leaders convinced them to cancel the event. Reformists’ fear was that popular mobilization presents an opportunity for hardliners to crackdown on the movement and aborts the whole reform process. When conservatives well-positioned in the Guardian Council, Revolutionary Guards, and the Judiciary started blocking the plans of Khatami’s administration and the Reformist Parliament and harassing pro-democracy activists, many supporters of reform began feeling disillusioned about the institutional methods of reformism. A clear image of that disappointment was when president Khatami gave a speech at Tehran University in 2004, and was booed by angry students for not taking more aggressive measures against conservatives. Reformists’ fragmentation, their defeat in 2005, and Ahmadinejad’s election as president were the direct outcome of that disillusion.
The fraudulent election of 2009 for many put a nail in the coffin of the reformism of the Khatami era. Many supporters of reformism interpreted the fraud as a clear end to the possibility of pursuing change through the institutions of the Islamic Republic. Citizens, disappointed about following their demands through established venues, took to the streets of Tehran in the biggest oppositional demonstrations since the 1979 Revolution. In the early phase of this protest wave, demonstrators were asking for the annulment of Ahmadinejahd’s reelection and a new election, which meant using popular mobilization to open up institutional venues for conventional politics. However, as demonstrations were brutally suppressed, the demands escalated to the fall of the regime.
The 2013 presidential election, including the campaign period and its aftermath, was a turning point for strategies of democratization in Iran. The campaign period this time started in an era of dark disappointment. While many reformists first tried to convince former president Mohammad Khatami to run for election, Khatami refused to run and said even if he ran his votes would not be counted. After Khatami made it most clear that he had no intention to run, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani registered to run for the race. However, when the Guardian Council disqualified Rafsanjani, many reformists lost their hope for seeking political reform through presidential election. The Organization of Mujahidin of the Islamic Republic, one of the major reformist parties, for example, took this as a sign that the ruling elite has made its decision in determining the outcome of the election and called for a boycott.
On the other hand, many young activists argued that the wave of support for Khatami and Hashemi should be directed to either Hassan Rowhani or Mohammad Reza Aref. Many grassroots supporters of the democratic movement in Iran also took such a stance and attended the campaign meetings of Aref and Rowhani. While these supporters were cheering for Rowhani and Aref in their campaigns, they were also chanting slogans for Musavi, Karrubi, and other political prisoners, slogans that were forbidden in any public space since the 2009 crackdown. These slogans were definitely more radical than Aref’s and Rowhani’s political positions, as they were more cautious and hesitant to directly speak about political prisoners and the house custody of the oppositional leaders. Despite their rather radical demands, however, the campaign participants did not criticize either Aref or Rowhani for their past behavior, or their lack of progressive platforms. All these participants were aware that Aref did not side with the Green Movement in 2009 and even attended the Friday sermon of 19 June 2009 when Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i warned protestors that they were responsible for any violent repercussion of street demonstrations. They also knew very well that Rowhani supported the infamous crackdown on students in June 1999, since the hardliner news agency, Farsnews, released the text of his speech during the campaign period to undermine his reformist credentials.
Campaign participants not only ignored the infamous background of Aref and Rowhani, but even aligned them with the leaders of the opposition, Musavi and Karrubi, in slogans such as “long live Aref, long live Musavi”. This approach was in contrast to the radical stance of some student groups in the 2009 election campaign period, when they were asking about Musavi’s position regarding regime atrocities during his terms as Prime Minister in 1980s. This was clearly the sign of an astute pragmatism on behalf of the campaign participants to pick Rowhani and Aref as their candidates and play with them in a game, for which they did not get to write the rules nor determine the players.
A clear indicator of such an approach was when people in meetings of both candidates were calling for an alliance between them: “Rowhani, Aref, alliance, alliance.” Ironically, the campaign participants were simultaneously cheering for both candidates, while also demanding one to step down to form a coalition. These calls indeed were effective to form an alliance around Hassan Rowhani. Ahmad Masjed-Jame’i, Khatami’s senior advisor pointed to the importance of the grassroots demands for an alliance. He explained that after disqualification of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, most of the senior reformist politicians preferred not to participate in the election. However, popular demands from other towns and provinces changed their minds.
The reformist alliance behind Rowhani was formed three days before the election day and Aref stepped down. While until that day Rowhani was still competing to be the runner-up to the second round, once the coalition endorsed him, his support skyrocketed, and continued growing until election day. When the victory of Rowhani in the first round was officially announced on Saturday 15 June, Iranians took to the streets to celebrate this unexpected triumph. Iranians again mixed their excitement and joy with political slogans, calling for the release of the political prisoners and opposition leaders, and again aligned their participation in the 2013 election with their engagement in the 2009 protests. While in the 2009 protests they were shouting: “Musavi, take back my vote,” this time they chanted “Musavi, Karrubi, we took back your vote.”
Iranians seeking democratic change effectively moved their leaders this time. They combined their electoral participation with extra-institutional methods of oppositional protest, and saw no contradiction in it. They recognized that existing politicians in the political game designed by the regime fell short of people’s democratic aspirations, but decided to play with the available pieces and disrupt the supposedly pre-determined outcome. This all suggests the strengthening of a pragmatist and activist model of oppositional politics in Iran, a model that promises a new encounter with rather old challenges of the democratic movement in Iran.