Islamic democracy and the will of the people: A stable Iran

American Herald Tribune | Heba Morad: Since the early morning hours, Tehran streets become crowded. The Iranian capital gets busy as soon as the sun rises. This busy-mode was more noticeable during the week preceding Election Day. Mrs. Hamideh from Gilan (a province in North of Iran which lies at the Caspian Sea and is widely known for its stunning nature) was standing in line but not at a polling center, there were three more days to the electoral race to take place. Hamideh was rather standing at a traditional bakery, waiting for her turn to buy fresh bread cooked on sizzling river pebbles for breakfast.

Hamideh had settled in Tehran twenty years ago when she got married to her husband Ali, who is a university professor. Hamideh was planning to vote for Ghalibaf, one of the Principlist candidates who had run for presidency. She thought that he was possibly the best candidate among all who can bring about change. In her opinion, four years were more than enough for incumbent president Rouhani to improve the economic situation. Meanwhile, her husband Ali and daughter Sepideh wanted to vote for Rouhani.

Salar sat at the stairs of a pedestrian bridge I often take in Jalal Al-Ahmad Street (named after a prominent story-writer, philosopher, translator and socio-political critic in contemporary Iran) and played his guitar as if he were playing on a stage with thousands watching. The young Tehrani man paid no attention to the noise coming from Tehran’s morning traffic. In his mid-twenties, Salar believes he was born to be a guitarist, though an engineering student at Tehran University. Asking him to whom will he vote for, Salar put his hand out showing me his purple bracelet (the color of the Rouhani campaign) and with a smile asked me to guess. “It is always eight years rather than four, this is how it works…and I like the man” he told me.

Mahsa, a young lady originally from Shiraz was skimming the news on her android phone but stopped a few times to check out the handy goods metro sellers were marketing in the wagon. She heads 5 days a week to Enghelab Street, which is not far off from the world-famous Azadi square. She has been working at a research and translation center for the past six years and was willing to vote for Rouhani for different reasons. Mahsa said he is her favorite candidate because he has been promising that the situation will improve but that he needed more time. She said that some improvements have already been made by the Rouhani government. Also for Mahsa, the nucleardeal was an important achievement and she hopes more is yet to come.

Mehdi was standing at the Tehran University main campus gate waving for his friends who had just finished class. They had planned to hit a nearby coffee shop to have their last snack together before the weekend elections. Mehdi and his three friends were voting for Raesi. His friend Mohamad-Reza, who was trying to express himself in broken English, saying that he thinks Raesi can help the economic situation improve and that he had promised to watch out for the poor.

Two days earlier, I also had a chat with a few academics and students at Tehran University. They had different opinions on who their candidate was and why they decided to vote for him. Dr. Zeinab Qassemi, a Tehran University Professor said that she has been watching the debates and that at the end of the day she will cast a vote to whom she believes seems to be a better candidate.

Earlier Iran’s six candidates for the presidential election squared off in their first live television debate, where president Rouhani was put under considerable criticism over his economic policy. In the second and third debates, the tones increased and there seemed to be hightened tension in the studio, where candidates put their rivals’ policies and plans under the spotlight with harsh criticism.

The presidential candidates included six figures: Hassan Rouhani; a self-declared moderate  and the incumbent president, Ebrahim Raisi; a conservative principlist who serves as the head of the Imam Reza Shrine Ostan Qods in Mashhad, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; the mayor of Tehran and a former commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and a principlist, Eshagh Jahangiri; Rouhani’s First Vice-President and reformist, Mostafa Mirsalim; a principlist university professor, and Mostafa Hashemitaba; a reformist and former minister and vice president.

Coming across hundreds of Iranians throughout the two weeks before Election Day, some expressed their views freely like I have not seen elsewhere, others thought it was best to keep it to themselves and said that such discussions should remain “off the record”. Yet a good majority spoke up and frankly said what they thought. Millions in Iran were watching the weekly debates; a chance for them to learn more about the candidates out of which one will rule the country.

On Wednesday night, only one night away from Election Day, I literally spent three hours in my Snapp taxi to get back home. Such a ride would usually take no more than 12 minutes. The streets we drove through had hundreds of Iranians cheering, singing, carrying flags, flyers and posters of the different candidates, yet Rouhani and Raeesi were the most prominent, as Ghalibaf and jahangiri had dropped out.

The driver said he will vote for Mr. Raesi. “I do not know him well but I am watching the debates and I am getting to know him. President Rouhani did not bring about real change, he has been in office for four years and what is the result? Nothing other than a worsening economic situation.”

Many ordinary Iranians have lost at least some faith in Rouhani because he has not been able to improve the economy despite the lifting of sanctions in January last year under the nuclear deal.

To increase his income, the driver had joined the team of licensed drivers to the ride-sharing app Snapp where people simply locate themselves on a map via their smart phones to find the nearest driver and get a fairly economic ride. He was having trouble finding a job for the past three years.

Soon afterwards and during the early morning hours on Friday the 19th of May, long queues of Iranians were already there waiting to cast their votes at the ballot boxes. The crowded streets were still the same only more crowded with people from all walks of life. The polls were left open for a few extra hours after the “huge rush” at the different polling centers across the country in the afternoon hours.

President Rouhani won the elections. Ibrahim Raeesi congratulated the winning president. Many people poured into the streets to express their joy. Young men who supported the Principlist party in Qom distributed flowers to the Rouhani supporters. Young Rouhani supporters followed their lead in Tehran.

Two days after President Rouhani came to office, I saw the guitarist again, sitting in the same place where he still plays his frets passionately. As soon as he saw me he waved his wrist showing me the purple bracelet. Salar believed his voice was heard.

Dr. Qassemi with whom I had long discussions on the elections had her vote among the more than 41 million votes. Following the elections, she noted that she is proud of her country. She assured that the system is not flawless but there is no perfection on this planet. “I think that we are one of the few democratic country that carries out successful elections with such huge turnout. The fact that these numbers voted during the electoral process and it went smoothly is proof that the people trust the system and believe in change and improvement,” she pointed out.

Among the students I had spoken to were Marzieh and Atefeh, both PHD student in political sciences. Marzieh said that what matters the most in all this is that the people have political awareness and take part in the democratic process. “Iranians analyze and think about events and they have proved once again that they determine their own destiny,” she stressed.

Her classmate Atefeh added to the point saying “I salute the Rahbar [Iranian title for Imam Ali Khamenei] who kept the promise he made during the Nowruz holidays. He had promised that order will stay and the process will take place democratically and indeed it did.”

She went on underlining that the Islamic Republic of Iran has shown its strength and that the popular will is strong. “The new generations are involved in the process despite the tough times, unlike many democratic countries where the turnout is shockingly low or where they cannot maintain order.”

Ayatollah Khamenei, and after the result was made public, congratulated the Iranians and said that the “massive and enthusiastic” participation of the Iranian people, who stood in long lines to reach the ballot boxes throughout the country, was a clear indication of the strength of the pillars of Islamic democracy. He also recommended the elected president and all people who will be part of the next administration to pursue “highly-motivated and thoughtful and youthful efforts” in order to do away with the country’s problems.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had tweeted following the elections “We derive stability from our people, who-unlike many-do vote. Iranians must be respected and are ready to engage.”

During the couple of weeks preceding Election Day, western media outlets claimed that the elections will cause strife in Iran, or that there will be major fraud to defeat President Rouhani. Instead, like on previous occasions there was a democratic process that turned out to be a healthy chapter in the history of Iran, where at the end of the day everyone was back to their daily routine only thinking about a better, and more united people together building a stronger future.

At the end of the day, what brings Iranians together alongside their heritage, their Hafez Divan of Poetry, the hospitality they enjoy and many other interesting features of their society is the electoral process itself. Regardless of who wins the majority of votes, the main winner is the Islamic Republic of Iran with its people and state institutions.