Iran’s Islamic Evolution Through the Ballot Box

Both conservatives and reformists consider the ballot box an essential instrument.

Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi at a campaign rally in Tehran on May 16.

Photographer: Ahmad Halabisaz/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

Maryam was 22 days old when Iranians dethroned their king in 1979. The Islamic regime that followed—with its black and brown robes, covered heads, and dour religiosity—was “just a fact” of life, she says. “We never thought about anything different, because we hadn’t seen anything else.” Thirty-eight years later, that acceptance is wearing thin.

The May 19 presidential vote—and the jubilant street celebrations that followed the reelection of President Hassan Rouhani, the nearest thing to a liberal allowed onto the ballot—showed an Iranian society much changed since the days of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution and unwilling to turn back. “One of my teachers used to tell us that if any strand of your hair showed, you would be hung up by it,” says Maryam, who like others interviewed for this article declined to give her last name for fear of retribution. “Now you can drive around in a car with your boyfriend, and no one says anything.”

Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the coterie of clerics and unelected officials who hold most power in Iran see elections as a means to preserve and legitimize the Islamic revolution; many voters view them as a means to force the liberalization of the regime. Although those propositions are at odds, the shared belief that the ballot box is an important instrument has been a source of stability in a region where several recent experiments in democracy have flamed out.

Nobody interviewed on May 20 at the Tehran street parties celebrating Rouhani’s victory said they had the stomach for another revolution. Memories of the brutal crackdown that followed the birth of the Green Movement in 2009—in which Iranians challenged Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in an election many believe was rigged—and of the Middle East bursting into flames in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings have damped Iranians’ appetite for revolt.

While Iran’s presidential elections offer a very limited form of democracy, the quadrennial ritual has been instrumental in moving the country in a more liberal direction. “In every election aspirations and demands are expressed, and that gives them legitimacy. And what is ceded can’t be taken back,” says Saeed Laylaz, an Iranian economist who advised former President Mohammad Khatami.

Since a divide emerged between the regime’s conservatives and reformists in the 1990s, a conservative candidate has claimed the presidency only twice: in 2005, when Ahmadinejad won amid record-low turnout, and in 2009, when he was returned to power in a poll marred by allegations of massive fraud.

Rouhani’s 19-point victory margin, despite rising unemployment and stagnant living standards, underscores the widespread support that opening up the economy and expanding personal freedoms enjoy across generations of voters. Turnout reached 73 percent not because the incumbent is hugely popular, but because reform-minded Iranians worried that high levels of absenteeism would hand victory to a hard-liner, turning the clock back toward 1979. The conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who was widely perceived to have Khamenei’s backing, drew just 38 percent of the vote.

Among those 16 million Raisi voters are many who support a more Islamicized country; many Rouhani voters also back the system. Mahdi, 28, voted for Raisi, and Iman, 25, for Rouhani, yet both regard the revolution as “sacred.” The young men, who are members of the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary group, view the Islamic Republic as having a unique form of religion-infused governance in which elections play a supporting role. “There may be two candidates, but they are part of the system,” Mahdi says. “Neither is operating outside this framework.”

If most Iranian youth are conservative by Western standards, their outlooks and lifestyles are also becoming more diverse. Hanging out at a Tehran skateboarding park in a baseball cap and T-shirt, Arshia, 19, says he listens to rap and trap, a subgenre of American hip-hop. At home, he watches The Walking Dead on satellite TV. “We get our ideas from Instagram and social media,” he says. “If it wasn’t for them, I’d probably be like my grandfather and pray.”

Arshia is unimpressed with Iran’s politicians—“they’re all clerics”—but he voted for Rouhani because he says life has improved under him. Skateboarding was frowned upon just a few years ago, when a policeman once stopped him riding home from school to ask if he thought he was living in America. Says Arshia: “For me the revolution represents mass stupidity. Only people who are brainwashed talk about it.”

Iman, a 33-year-old born at the height of the 1980s baby boom, which has contributed to a youth-unemployment rate that averaged 26 percent last year, voted for the first time on May 19. The owner of a music store in central Tehran that sells tars, setars, and other traditional Persian instruments says he feared that a Raisi win would bring back the bans on broadcasts of Western music and limits on live concerts that Ahmadinejad instituted during his eight-year rule. Conservatives hate music, Iman says, “because if music becomes more popular, no one will listen to the imams.”

Rouhani’s strongest support came from the over-60s, according to a pre-election poll by the Washington-based Ippo Group. Already adults at the time of the revolution, they remember how things were before 1979, when they lived in an autocracy but had fewer religious and social restrictions. Farah, 55, who joined the post-election celebrations on Valiasr Street, the 12-mile artery that cuts through Tehran, along with her sisters, age 50 and 60, says she has “no connection” to the Islamic ideals of the regime.

All three took part in the demonstrations that set the stage for the Shah’s overthrow, but they supported the secular government that initially took power. Khomeini’s Islamists, who wrested control, “cheated us,” Farah says. “We were looking for more political freedom, but instead we lost all our freedoms.”

Maryam says her mother and five aunts were ardent, educated, young revolutionaries. “I learned a lot from them, but I missed out on other things,” she says. “Like, I didn’t know how to dance. I still don’t.” Nightclubs, like alcohol, are banned in Iran, yet private dance parties are now ubiquitous.

The revolution was quickly followed by an eight-year war with Iraq, in which at least half a million Iranians died. It was a time of sacrifice and privation, Maryam recalls, in which the only clothes available for women were dark, full-length robes. Dissent was put on hold until the conflict ended, in 1988. “We had to fight for everything, even things that today’s children take for granted, like wearing colored clothes,” she says. The 1997 election of Khatami, a reformist, ushered in what Maryam says was a golden age for personal freedoms. “I saw the change in my aunts,” she says. “They used to be very strict, but they came to see it was a mistake.”

Her own crisis of faith was triggered by the brutal crackdown on the Green Movement protests. An observant though not devout Muslim, Maryam says she gave up religion when security forces killed protesters in the streets on Ashura, the holiest day in the Shiite calendar.

Despite this history of repression, Maryam appreciates Khamenei—who’s led Iran as president and then supreme leader for 36 years—for his ability to keep the country safe from the surrounding turmoil. “It is not easy,” she says, “to run such a country, in such a region, with such a people.”

The bottom line: Despite a paucity of reform-minded candidates, many Iranians are committed to voting: They see it as the best way to force change.

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