Iran's election: let them eat potatoes
What's going on in Iran? The results in the election have surprised commentators the world over. Mousavi supporters in Iran are naturally disappointed (to the point of saying the election’s been “stolen”) and the likes of Hillary Clinton are sending out tense diplomatic missives about how they hope the results have reflected the “will and desire” of the Iranian people.
On top of that, scary-looking images of protestors battling with the Iranian police (and some getting pretty horribly clubbed by plain-clothes “security” men) and announcements from the Iranian Interior Ministry that no protests were to be allowed today, all have the look and feel of a put-up job.
Mmmm. Maybe, but also we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Okay, on the one hand Amnesty has expressed alarm at these "shocking scenes" of violence against Mousavi supporters. But, having scanned quite a bit of coverage I'm struck by how reporters are talking about the outcome as if it's all but obvious that there's been skulduggery from the Ahmadinejad camp. Maybe there has, but in the absence of reliable information about vote-fixing and other irregularities the international community might have to accept (as with elections in Gaza and elsewhere recently) that the candidate most fancied in western capitals wasn't the one best liked in the country itself.
In other words – here’s the alternative narrative. From what we can gather, Ahmadinejad is extremely popular as an “uncorruptible” politician in rural areas of Iran. Among vast swathes of poorer people (some 18 million people according to some estimates), a combination of (famously) distributing potatoes and raising wages has solidified his popularity during the last four years. (Should Gordon Brown try the potato trick? Just a thought).
So, step forward Mr Ahmadinejad, champion of the poor. At the same time, ask any human rights type about Iran and you'll quickly hear about Mr A's dark side. About how he presides over a government that locks up journalists (including the Canadian-Iranian reporter Roxana Saberi), women's rights activists, trades unionists and anyone else who gets in the way of an authoritarian approach to governance. Meanwhile, where else in the world are men and women being regularly sentenced to death by stoning (yes, stoning) for the “crime” of adultery? As I was saying on another blog last week, Iran's record on the death penalty is second to only China (in being utterly appalling).
There's probably a lesson for human rights activists in some of this. Whole swathes of populations, particularly in developing countries, often seem to be more responsive to offered improvements in “basic” rights like housing, food, education and health rather than less immediately tangible “political” rights. It's the ICESCR v ICCPR!
At the same time, analysts who talk about a reformist “genie being out of the bottle” in Iran may yet be right. In particular young Iranians (or at least a sizeable proportion of them) appear keen to live altogether freer lives – less street hassle from the “morality police”, more access to uncensored views online and on television and, if they feel like, more freedom to publicly criticise the government.
If Ahmadinejad stays he's surely going to have to respond to this. Let's see if he can.
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