The class element in recent Middle Eastern elections.
Posted on 10:17, June 30th, 2009 by Pablo
Lost in the chorus of outrage over the Iranian election results and subsequent repression of protest is the socio-economic cleavages evident in the polls. The same is true of the coverage of the Lebanese parliamentary elections held two weeks earlier. It is therefore worthwhile to examine this dimension.
President Amadinijhad represents not only the militant Islamicist ideological wing embodied in the Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basij, who are now purportedly in a power struggle with the clerics in the Guardian Council over the direction of the post-revolutionary leadership movement. Amadinijhad also represents, both in tone and demeanour, the urban working and rural classes. Against him are poised the supporters of Mir Hossein Mousani, a former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs who his supporters and Western analysts see as a reformist. He is also a millionaire who receives his support from the urban bourgeousie, secularists, the better educated and university students. In most aspects he is not discernably different from Amadinijhad with regard to major policy issues (such as the civilian nuclear energy program), but he does represent a modernizing element within the revolution, one that is more secular, more technologically savvy and more attuned to Western mores than the mullahs and Revolutionary Guards (at the elite level) and the working classes (at the base) that see Amadinijhad as a bastion against corrosive secularisation of the revolutionary ethos.
The election was a referendum not on Iran’s foreign policy (which the West is obsessed about), but on Amadinijhad’s economic management, which by any measure is poor and which, like in any other country, occupies the attention of the mass electorate. Iran is a net oil importer that cannot feed itself in spite of its large land mass and variegated geography, access to the sea and ample fresh water. It was also a contest between the cell phone and twitter generation and the rest, since only 30 percent of Iranians have access to computer facilities and less than half have access to cell phones. Clearly, Amadinijhad and the mullahs underestimated the power of cellphone and computer access, particiularly when the regime itself is now dependent on computer services and cell phones in order to conduct its daily business (which practically speaking means that universal shut downs or denials of service are nigh impossible).
My belief is that Amadinijhad won the election, but by a narrow margin that spooked him and his supporters who felt that a close vote would undermine the face of strength and unity they wish to present to the West with regards to the nuclear progam, support for Hamas and Hezbollah and foreign relations in general, to say nothing of their relationship with the Sunni Arab world. Unfamiliar with the subtleties of vote fraud so well refined in advanced democracies, the Amadinijhad government–which controlled the balloting–padded their lead too much and hand counted votes too quickly to be credible. Hence the uproar.
But the genie is out of the bottle no matter what happens. Amadinijhad is dead in the water as far as having influence and leverage at home and abroad. In terms of foreign policy, he cannot purport to be the representative of any consensus vis a vis relations with the West, which undermines any bargaining position he hopes to maintain on key foreign policy issues (simply due to the lack of acknowledged majority support for his views). Domestically, the Revolutionary Guard and Basij has been sent a clear message that their ideological project is not shared by a wide swathe of Iranians. Moreover, the class divisions that precipitated the election crisis will not go away just because the government quells the protests. Thus, whether or not the West would like to intervene in the post-election process (a move that has never been proven to be successful over the long-term), the class conflict underpinning the electoral dispute will continue so long as both sides play the dispute in zero-sum terms. In the measure they do, they risk the possibility of civil war, since significant elements in the conventional military (particularly in the more technologically or professionally oriented branches of the Air Force and Navy) will not follow Revolutionary Guard orders to kill their own people (if nothing else because the officer corps and non-commisioned officers are part of the middle classes), and because the “real” military will be needed to quell any mass revolt. In the measure that the Amadinijhad and Mousavi factions cut a deal and marginalise the Revolutionary Guard and Basij pustchists, the clerics and conventional officer corps will back them. The question is, can they reconcile the class conflicts in a political compromise that is mutually binding, universally acceptable and stable over time?
In Lebanon, Saad el-Hariri assumed the mantle of his assassinated father Rafic and gained a majority in the June 7 parliamentary elections, winning 71 of 128 seats . Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah, won 57 seats and accepted the outcome. Hezbollah represents the working class and Shiia vote in Lebanon; Hariri represents the Sunni, Christian, Druze, secularist and bourgeoise vote. The West applauded the result and urged Hariri to proceed with his father’s anti-Syrian and anti-Iranian project, which includes marginalising (and criminalising) Hezbollah. Understanding the realities on the ground, Saad el-Hariri has opted instead to form a national unity government that includes Hezbollah because he apparently understands that class, not religious conflict, is what drives many to support the Shiia extremists (who deliver on their promises of social services far better than any of their pro-Western counterparts).
What is remarkable is the unmentioned premise for Western political support in a Middle Eastern (or any other) election: defense of upper class (read capitalist) interests at the expense of all others. To be sure, religious, ethnic and cultural conflicts are bound up in these electoral contests, but one thing remains clear: even in societies rendered by such superstructural forms of primary identification, it is class that drives the major political divisions, and it is class interest, capitalist class interests specifically, to which the West responds most favorably when it comes to electoral outcomes. All of this is obvious: for the West it seems electoral democracy is not so much about the freedom to choose but about the “freedom” to choose bourgeoise leaders who uphold the national capitalist class interest as well as an affinity for Western economic orientation and macroeconomic logics (in spite of the obvious debacles such orientation has produced in both the developed and developing world). The response to Hamas’s electoral victory is an indication of that view, above and beyond its problematic approach to violence, Iranian connections and non-recognition of Israel.
I should note that the current trend in both elections indicates a move away from religious militancy and towards moderate-secularism, which to my mind is a good thing. It also represents a specific repudiation of Shiia militancy, either in the form of the Revolutionary Guard ideology or the perspective of its Hezbollah and Hamas proxies in Lebanon and Palestine ( fully understanding the local conditions underpinning their respective support), something that will undoubtably comfort elites in the Sunni Arab world.
For the social democratic Left the elections pose a conundrum: who to support? The “bad guys” (at least in Western eyes) are supported by the working masses and rural poor; the “good guys” are supported by elites and other propertied groups as well as well-meaning sorts such as intellectuals and artists. The class line does not suffice to chart a course of response to such situations. For social democratic governments, this poses a major problem; for right wing governments such as that temporarily governing NZ, it does not. Thus the question begs: when confronted by this type of class conflict viewed through the prism of contested elections, does the democratic Left (in government or in opposition) choose democracy over class interest or vice versa? If so why, exactly? If not, why not?