Journal of Democracy 16.4 (2005) 9-22
[Access article in PDF]
The Conservative Wave Rolls On
In June 2005, Iranians went to the polls in what proved to be the most intensely contested of the nine presidential elections that the Islamic Republic has held since 1980. The 2005 vote was also the first to go to a runoff, as the June 17 first round ended with no candidate having surpassed the 50 percent threshold needed for an outright victory. In the June 24 second round, Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was elected president with 62 percent of the vote against former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The official turnout reported for both rounds was around 60 percent, which is relatively highfor Iran, albeit far below the highwater-mark 83 percent turnout that was recorded during the presidential balloting of 1997. The election marked the second transfer of the presidential office from one occupant to another since the 1989 death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.
The election result was dramatic. Ahmedinejad is a hard-line conservative populist and the first Iranian president since 1981 not to hail from clerical ranks. His win confirms the conservative consolidation of power, and stands in marked contrast to the popular choice in the 1997 election, whose record turnout brought to power reformist Mohammad Khatami. The 2005 election marked a transition of power to the postrevolutionary and even post-Khomeini generation, a new demographic cohort whose values have begun to define the tenor of Iranian politics. At the same time, the vote seemed to signal a shift of momentum away from the affluent or middle-class part of this cohort (particularly [End Page 9] its youth culture, so prominent since 1997), and toward the poorer classes and their discontents. Indeed, it appears that Ahmedinejad owes his presidency to lower-income voters.
The 2005 campaign was one of the most dynamic and innovative that Iran has ever seen. It brought to the fore not only intense debates over various conceptions of government and social organization, economic development, and foreign policy, but also experimentation with new language and political styles. It involved new methods—many openly borrowed from the West—such as focus groups, targeted advertising, image management, and sound bites. Despite the dynamism of the campaign, however, the outcome of the election opened new political fissures and raised serious concerns about the prospects for democracy in Iran.
The reformist landslide that brought President Khatami to office in 1997 sparked high hopes for democratic change and radically altered the character of Iranian politics.1 Diverse forces had converged to elevate Khatami, a middle-ranking cleric with a knowledge of German and a fondness for phrases such as "the dialogue of civilizations." Among his strongest supporters were reformists within the regime who felt eager to free government decision making from clerical oversight and to stop Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his conservative backers from gathering all power into their own hands. Many of these reformists had been extremist ringleaders during the Islamic Republic's early days, only to find themselves on the losing side of power struggles with the ascendant conservatives in the 1990s. Intraregime reformists formed the heart, soul, and sinews of Khatami's campaign and political movement.
Along with the dialogue of civilizations, Khatami spoke of democracy, civil society, and an improved place for women, and delivered his message in a new and moderate style. All this struck a potent chord with the middle class, students, academics, and civil society, the sources first of the high turnout that swept him into office and then of the intellectual support that backed his administration. The secret to Khatami's success as a campaigner had been his ability to unite the intraregime reformists with those in civil society. But Khatami and his lieutenants were never able to transform this winning electoral coalition into a coherent force for prodemocratic governance. The intraregime reformists behind Khatami focused too closely on the cultural and political demands of the middle class that had grown so much in size and...