A call for reform


  • Letters
  • Thursday, 20 Jun 2013

Last week’s presidential elections in Iran saw a charismatic cleric triumph over conservative hardliners.

RECENT elections around the world have thrown up some interesting albeit one-sided results.

First of all, the ruling dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea chalked up a crushing 99 seats to one victory in the parliamentary elections held on May 26.

The country has been ruled by Teodoro Obiang Nguema since 1979 when he took over from his maniacal uncle, independence leader Francisco Macias Nguema. No surprise that the president’s son, Teodoro Jr, was appointed second vice-president last year and looks set to be the next ruler.

The younger Teodoro is renowned for an abortive rap career during which he dated hip-hop star Eve, and a history of lavish spending in an oil rich nation where most people are destitute.

Fortunately life is better in Bhutan where a one-sided victory is on the cards for Prime Minister Jigme Yoser Thinley’s Bhutan Peace and Democracy party which is defending 45 out of the country’s 47 seats.

The first round of a staggered election (held on May 31 and July 13) saw two opposition parties headed by women pick up an impressive 22% of the vote, but get knocked in the process. Still, these are small important steps in what is just Bhutan’s second election since the monarchy ceased to be absolute in 2008. With an emphasis on Gross National Happiness rat­­her than rapid industrialisation, one can’t help but wonder if the Bhutanese have got it right.

Elsewhere, the oceanic republic of Nauru seems to have ended a period of intense jostling following a June 8 election which saw Fisheries Minister Baron Waqa taking over as president. Like many Micronesian nations, Nauru’s system is less about party politics and more to do with individual personalties.

What I am truly thrilled about though is the presidential election in Iran. The previous elections in 2009 saw President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prevailing in controversial circumstances over former premier Mir Hossein Mousavi.

In what became known as the Green Revolution, people took to the streets in protests coordinated largely through social media and were brutally suppressed by the police and militia members. I still can’t forget the harrowing death video of Neda Agha Soltan.

This time around, Iran’s popular but suppressed reformist wing was better coordinated. Former vice-president Mohammad Reza Aref withdrew his candidacy so that Hassan Rowhani could be the sole candidate of the reform movement in the elections that took place on June 14. The latter duly swept to power with nearly 51% of the popular vote despite facing five other candidates.

Incidentally, a highly popular tweet by Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Khameni pointed out that the Iranian presidential electoral system was fairer than that of the United States, leading Iranian twitterers to debate the correct Persian word for gerrymandering!

The thumping victory of a moderate reformer over a divided field of hardliners is a vindication for Iran’s progressives who have suffered many times in the past.

From the CIA-backed overthrow of the liberal Mosaddeq government in 1953 to the annihilation of the popular Tudeh Party in the early days of the Islamic republic when party leaders such as Ehsan Tabari and Noureddin Kianouri were tortured into making televised confessions and thousands of party cadres were executed. Right up to and including the Green Revolution, in fact.

As a toddler, I spent a short amount of time at Teheran’s Mehrabad International Airport but have yet to return. The fascination with a nation that is the modern incarnation of the Persian Empire of great emperors like Cyrus and Xerxes still persists however.

There are lessons Malaysians can learn by studying what happened in Iran, not least that those espousing progressive viewpoints need to be as organised and committed as fundamentalists and hardliners. A laissez faire attitude to politics can easily result in a corrupt regime being replaced by a tyrannical fundamentalist one. For now, I am just grateful that the people of Iran have renewed hope.

> Star Online news editor Martin Vengadesan grew up in nine countries spread over four continents and is both an avid student of global politics and an obsessive election-watcher.

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