A Tale of Two Elections

Roja Heydarpour
March 3, 2016

Let’s play a game: Which election is it? Iran or USA?

Q: Student protesters were physically shuffled out of a political rally.

Q: Voter turnout was 62 percent.
A: Iran

Q: A photojournalist was thrown to the ground in a chokehold for straying.

Q: Women doubled their presence on the political stage.
A: Iran

While Americans participate in primaries to decide on the presidential nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties, Iranians voted in parliamentary elections last Friday—and the two unfolded in paradoxical ways.

HolyLands_TinyIn Iran, reformist candidates took all of Tehran’s 30 parliamentary seats and ousted staunch conservatives from the Assembly of Experts, the council of theologians responsible for appointing the successor to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. The reformers did so on a platform of gradual change and negotiation. In America, Donald Trump routed his opponents on Super Tuesday and looks set to win the Republican nomination thanks to a stream of authoritarian, racist, fear-mongering rhetoric. Even Bernie Sanders’s unexpected viability has pointed to a desire for more populist and extreme policies, whether they be to the left or right.

As the narrative goes, Iran is the extremist government, a theocracy that stifles personal freedoms, while America is a beacon of democracy, where every vote counts and freedom of speech reigns supreme. But it seems both countries have reached a gray area in their political maturity.

Without endorsing or rejecting either country’s political framework, a look at voter turnout paints an interesting picture. Iran’s turnout for last week’s elections was 62 percent, while the 2014 U.S. House elections impelled only a 36-percent turnout. As much as 72 percent of Iranians were motivated to cast a ballot in their presidential elections in 2013, while 54 percent of Americans voted for their president in 2012. Numbers are not complete for the most recent U.S. primaries, but estimates show turnout to average around 28 percent overall.

The numbers seem to indicate that Iranians are more invested in democracy than otherwise believed in the West, despite the fact that candidates are taken off ballots for their views, and the Supreme Leader’s word is the word in Iran. Even after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in 2009 and opponents took to the streets to allege fraud, Iranians have continued to come out to vote.

Each time, there has been incremental progress. In 2013, Iranians peacefully voted in the centrist and reformist Hassan Rouhani, who has presided over nuclear talks with the West and the lifting of decades-long sanctions.

Another sign of promise is the gains women parliamentarians have made. The previous parliament featured only nine women among 290 lawmakers. After the elections, the number is projected to be 22.

Women still have to wear the hijab, and divorce and inheritance laws continue to favor men. But under such constraints Iranians are making their voices heard. It must seem counterintuitive to the general observer, but people living under inherently repressive governments are so accustomed to propaganda that they have learned to penetrate the lies, and are perfectly able to decipher political nuance. Iranians don’t expect much humanity from their government, but they are demanding more.

The U.S. elections are making one ponder how a significant cross section of Americans are being seduced by a demagogue’s bombast, and why voters in free and moderate countries are increasingly gravitating toward extremist views. Perhaps in America, the people have grown accustomed to their basic rights—and they are now demanding less and less.

Roja Heydarpour is a freelance writer and editor. She has worked for The Daily Beast, The New York Times, Al-Monitor, The New York Observer, and Devex.

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