People power and its limits

The authorities in Iran seem to have succeeded in suppressing popular protests for the moment. More generally, it seems clear that “people power” has its limits, summarised by the aphorism that a successful revolution consists of kicking in an open door. That is, if a state is divided, unsure of itself and illegitimate even in its own eyes, a manifestation of mass opposition will be enough to bring it down. But a coherent ruling group, confident of its own rightness and willing to use force against its opponents, can retain power even in the face of a strongly mobilised majority of the public. It remains to be seen which of these analyses applies in Iran.

A couple of points of clarification. First, although it seems pretty clear that the vote was rigged, that doesn’t imply that the Opposition won. In this context, Moussavi is right to call for annulment and fresh elections, not for himself to be declared the winner.

Second, it is possible for a majority in the metropolis to override the wishes of the country as a whole (see Thailand). The fact that Khatami won two elections in the face of opposition from the dominant clerics suggests to me that this is probably not the case here, but again, the main point is that, with a rigged election you can’t tell.

Finally, while this is a serious business, it’s amusing to see that it has allowed David Burchell to revert to his accustomed position as a reflexive critic of US foreign policy.

17 thoughts on “People power and its limits

  1. Aren’t we lucky to have an open scrutinised voting system run by a trusted independent authority rather than local fixers?

    I haven’t been following this closely but it seems possible that there is no vote rigging, just a Tehran v the rest of the country divide in preferences. (Which is not to say that Iran is a model anything.) What’s the evidence?

  2. a coherent ruling group … can retain power even in the face of a strongly mobilised majority of the public.

    It helps greatly if there is an equally strongly mobilised large minority who support said ruling group. Indeed, it’s difficult to know who is the minority or majority here.

  3. Lets hope that the crony socialism practiced in Iran is nearing it’s used by date.

  4. I think it’s pretty clear there was vote rigging. Of course, that doesn’t prove that the majority supported the opposition. I’ll clarify this a bit.

  5. I am reminded of when hundreds of thousands of people in Australia rallied against the the Iraq war. The government quite effectively ignored it.

  6. The demonstration may be a sideline. I think the transcript of Leigh Sales’s interview with Robert Bear on ABC Late Line is worth reading to get a relatively informed commentry on what is going on in Iran. To quote:

    LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Robert Bear is a former CIA agent and expert on the Middle East. He’s also the author of ‘The devil we know: dealing with the new Iranian superpower’ and incidentally, he was the inspiration for the character played by George Clooney in the film ‘Syriana’.

    I spoke to Robert Bear earlier today.

    Mr Bear, you’ve written that in Iran “nothing is ever as it seems.” What do you mean by that?

    ROBERT BEAR, FORMER CIA AGENT: Well, I mean, look – look at the opposition leader is now Mir Hossein Mousavi. He was involved in blowing up the marines in Beirut in October 1983, and he’s still followed this arc. He’s an architect and he’s taken this arc and he’s gone from essentially a firebrand radical terrorist if you like into a democrat, moderate leading a revolution.

    And this is a revolution that’s important from the inside. This is not a revolution like Khomeini’s revolution; this is from the inside. And I’m certain that he is simply the spokesman for a group inside the regime that is taking on Khamenei, the Supreme Leader.

    For the remainder, URL:

  7. If you want evidence of vote rigging, there’s 40 million handwritten votes being counted in 12 hours; the almost uniform winning margins across very different regions, including Mousavi’s home town; some areas having participation rates of over 100%, surely some divine influence there; unconfirmed reports of piles of ballots being torched. Apparently Mousavi was contacted by the Ministry of the Interior and told he had won, but to wait for them to ‘prepare the public.’ Then, before, the result was announced, the riot police came in, the text messaging network was brought down, and state media urged the populace to unite behind the winner.

    You can take your pick from any of those.

    As John says, that doesn’t mean the majority supported Mousavi, but I think it’s pretty clear that those opposed to the regime- which, since he factionalised himself, includes Khamenei- are in the no-longer-silent majority. Despite the crap that Syriana man espouses, the movement is not elite and confined to North Tehran. There have been protests in Esfehan, Tabriz, and other cities. It is more difficult to protest without getting killed in rural areas, but opposition exists there as well. I liked his film character but that guy really is talking bollocks. What the hell do the Beirut barrack bombings have to do with anything? That was Hezbollah! An Iran proxy, sure, but compare that to the US proxy, Iraq, who were given chemical weapons to use on Iranian civilians. America’s (Americans’?) inability for self-reflection really gives me the shits. I’m giving myself a headache, so I’m going to stop.

  8. Pr Q says:

    …a strongly mobilised majority of the public.

    It remains to be seen which of these analyses applies in Iran.

    First, although it seems pretty clear that the vote was rigged, that doesn’t imply that the Opposition won.

    Liberal democrats need to be careful of what they wish for when it comes to elections in the Middle-East. The “illiberal”* populations of these countries do not automatically morph into Fairfax editorial-reading liberals when it comes time to drop the ballot into the box.

    Also, it is kind of worrying that Andrew Sullivan is showering the Iranian green revolutionaries with compliments, like an excited puppydog. This guy is always the first to hop onto and off the bandwagon.

    Neither analyses applies if the there was no “strongly mobilised majority if the public” voting for liberal reform. The pre-election polling evidence suggests that the conservative Ahmadinejad was outpolling the more liberal Mousavi by a margin of 2-to-1. The pollsters, writing in the WaPo, conclude that all the radical fun and games in the city are a superficial and misleading index of the countries overall opinion:

    The only demographic groups in which our survey found Mousavi leading or competitive with Ahmadinejad were university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians. When our poll was taken, almost a third of Iranians were also still undecided. Yet the baseline distributions we found then mirror the results reported by the Iranian authorities, indicating the possibility that the vote is not the product of widespread fraud.

    Polls are not conclusive but it are suggestive that Ahmadinejad would have won, rigged or not. Obviously Ahmadinejad and the ruling clique of mullahs did not want to take any chances.

    Pr Q says:

    Second, it is possible for a majority in the metropolis to override the wishes of the country as a whole

    That is whats happening, in my view. There is a big Culture War in the ME, between the “Sex and the City” secular urbanised young singles and the “Simple Life” sectarian un-urbanised family folks. A somewhat more caffeinated version of the same dynamic that energises political conflict in the developed nations.

    On paper, demographic trends make it look like Iran is heading towards liberalisation. Most of the population live in the cities and most are young.

    On the ground, things may be different. Iran’s population boomed after Khomeni’s fundamentalist revolution. So most young Iranians will have been brought up in an atmosphere of religious sectarianism.

    As Steve Sailer would say, the liberals have the babes. But the “illiberals”* have the babies.

    We’ve been here before in the ME. The political situation in Iran appears to follow a general pattern where religious people tend to have more babies so their parties tend to be in a stronger demographic position over the long term. Think Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq. All countries with democratic processes, faithfully representing the preferences of their usually illiberal populations.

    The politicization of fertility works to favour “illiberal”* parties even in the “developed world”. Liberalism has a kind of demographic death wish that dampens its momentum after a generation.

    Still it looks as though Ahmadinejad et al have badly miscalculated in using Chicago democrat tactics to make sure of their victory. Thereby draining their regime of badly needed legitimacy.

    Finally, its interesting and gratifying to see how regime change in less-developed nations can evolve through peaceful and democratic means. I am so glad that the Bush did not bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities when the neo-cons were urging it. Imagine how much more difficult civil change would be if it had been engineered by violent revolution through uprising or invasion.

    I wish the Iranian liberals, and their splendid film makers, all the best. But the ME is “the middle of nowhere” as far as I am concerned. Changing its political constitution is, to paraphrase the greatest 19th C statesman, “not worth the healthy bones of one grenadier”.

    * I suggest the term “corporal” (instead of the more tendentious “illiberal”) to denote those citizens who express a preference for institutional authority over individual autonomies.

  9. “40 million handwritten votes being counted in 12 hours”

    Nothing unusual in that – British elections are usually declared on the night, with a similar number of votes. The best indicator of rigging, however, is the suspiciously identical percentage figures from around the country.

    It’s a mystery why only Australia has a permanent electoral commission, capable of running honest elections with multiple, complex, voting systems. What passes for a system in the US is risible – with so much at stake, the cost of a properly administered system is minuscule. The current shambles is the equivalent of having the umpires for an AFL game decided by lottery from the crowd at the ground.

  10. May I suggest to read this quote from Hannah Arendt? Violence of course can, in many cases, destroy the power of people acting together, but sometimes this power can destroy violence. And has in the past. Let’s hope the Iranian people will also manage to pull this off. And if they don’t succeed, the world will know that the Iranian state has only violence left.

  11. Something of a digression, but the Australian system is only “honest” in the sense that it is not distorted away from functioning according to its own specifications. But those specifications are defective themselves, in a number of material ways – notably, from a lack of transparency and an inbuilt bias towards electing representatives from established parties without letting through any message such as “none of the above” that a low turn out can reveal. Had Pauline Hanson been able to participate freely without setting up machinery, that machinery would not have been set up and exercised an influence beyond the single election that a simple protest candidacy would have affected. In my view, a cumulative voting system without compulsory voting would be far better and wouldn’t need professional machinery to run it, particularly if “none of the above” could defeat actual candidates and keep them out.

  12. There is at least a 50 percent chance that more Iranians support Ahmadinejad than Mousavi. Mousavi’s supporters tend to be urbane, English-speaking, outward-looking, cosmpolitan etc etc. In any country on earth if a politician becomes the candidate for people like that they lose badly.

    But Iran is about as much of a democracy as Singapore, whose government jails also people for dissent and restricts media and, in the end, has majority support.

  13. And now for the Amateur Hour!So we wont look via Google to see if the C.I.A. have a fistful of fistfuls of millions of dollars to transfix Iran into the TV event where World Championship Boxing couldn’t!? So I take an easier path and either lookup DavidIcke or Alex Jones or Geoff see what they maybe doing!?So $400,000 million is quoted as their little booty for Peace Justice and Superman’s,no,Spiderman’s tights!? And they wont be worth much in relationship to all the Gold that Iran has now,even, if, last year they imported much that was American.Still the C.I.A. cannot appreciate facts like that,because after all if just one American said that the Iranians are good customers..the C.I.A. would be seeking employment elsewhere,and we wouldn’t even see Henry Kissinger on YouTube..waiting in the wings to sing like Pavrotti,of course!?

  14. Im inlcline to agree with PM – why dont we get one full vote for who we want and one half vote for who we definitely dont want (an individual of any party – enough half votes against and the party kicks them out). The trouble is when we vote for a party we have to take the good with the bad (and maybe we mostly want the good but dont want the bad! I reckon half a vote against might do the trick and keep bad pollies out of parties)


  15. John, the situation hasn’t ended yet. Second the revolution hasn’t yet used (and may not be able to do so successfully) its trump card – strikes. In 1979 oil workers destroyed the Shah.

    They could do the same to the Islamic republic (but may also support it). I don’t know.

    The point is to me that the split in the ruling class opens up the space for democratic forces to push for the overthrow of the regime, and having done that, they are unlikely to retreat to a wishy washy bourgeois democracy without addressing fundamental economic grievances. of course if the workign classas working class doesn’t enter into the battle then mass murder Mousavi could triumph. More likely the right wing will destroy him if workers are quiet.

  16. Iran, like the Philippines, is a country that has demonstrated the effectiveness of “people power”. Both sides of the divided leadership of Iran were part of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

    Leadership is important because it is not just about mobilization but direction over time. At the same time repression and violence are not guaranteed to work against a mobilized population. It has been suggested that there are class divisions in the current protests that did not occur in 1979. There is, I suggest, a dynamic that without some agreed political compromise, those who are protesting against a repressive government have to keep going, perhaps as Juan Cole suggests by using a general strike.

    The interesting thing so far is what the government has chosen not to do. They have not arrested or killed the leaders of the insurrection, which suggest their hands are tied to some extent.

  17. In the 2005 election, Ahmadinejad’s support was stronger in Tehran (where he’d been mayor) than in the countryside.

    The two main opposition candidates Mousavi and Karoubi are members (respectively) of the Azeri and Lur ethnic groups.

    In 2005, Mousavi won the largest share of the vote in the ethnic Azeri areas (Azeris make up around 25-30% of the population of Iran).

    The 2009 purported results show Ahmadinejad winning absolute majorities in both Luristan and the Azeri-majority provinces.

    Ahmadinejad was never particularly popular in rural Iran (and seeing as 65% of Iranians live in the major cities even if he were, such support would not be enough to produce his claimed margin of victory).

    “… the movement that is unfolding in front of our eyes is seen as basically a middle-class uprising against a retrograde theocracy that is banking on backward, conservative and uneducated masses who do not know any better. While the illiterate and “uncouth” masses provide the populist basis of Ahmadinejad’s support, the middle class is demanding an open-market civil society.

    Highly educated, pro-Western and progressive Iranians are thus placed on Mir Hossein Moussavi’s side, while backward villagers and urban poor are on Ahmadinejad’s. The fact that in North America and Western Europe, usually unveiled and fluently English-speaking women are brought to speak on behalf of the women demonstrators further intensifies the impression that if women are veiled or do not speak English fluently then they must be Ahmadinejad supporters.

    This is a deeply false dichotomy that projects a flawed picture to the outside world. It is predicated on the spin that a very limited pool of expatriate academics are putting on a movement that is quite extraordinary in Iranian political culture, one whose full dimensions have yet to be unpacked.

    What above all challenges the reading of this event as a middle-class revolt against “uncouth radicalism” is a crucial statistic that professor Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, one of the most reliable Iranian economists in the U.S., provides in the same set of responses that The New York Times solicited from experts. “Young people ages 15-29,” Salehi-Isfahani reports, “make up 35 percent of the population but account for 70 percent of the unemployed.”

    The overwhelming majority of the people pouring into streets of Tehran and other major cities in support of Moussavi are precisely these 15- to 29-year-olds. How could this then be a middle-class uprising if the overwhelming majority of those who are supporting it and putting their lives on the line are in fact jobless 15- to 29-year-olds who still live with their parents — who cannot even afford to rent an apartment, let alone marry and raise a family and join the middle class in a principally oil-based economy that is not labor-intensive to begin with?

    Another crucial statistic that Salehi-Isfahani does not cite is the fact that more than 63 percent of university entrants in Iran are women, but only 12 percent are part of the labor force. That means that the remaining 51 percent are out of a job, and yet the most visible aspect of these anti-Ahmadinejad demonstrations is that women visibly outnumber men. How could jobless men and women be participating in a massive middle-class uprising against their “uncouth” leaders?

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