Friday, April 18, 2008

Allo Landan?

Guessing Game

I spotted this walking down the street today...Can anyone guess what it is?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Almost Democratic

A runoff for parliamentary elections in Iran will happen in a couple weeks, on April 25th. About a month ago, right smack before Nowruz began, was the first round.

March 14th 2008

I don’t claim to be an expert by any means on Iran’s politics and political figures, but I am interested, and try to follow and gain as much understanding as I can—which remains of course quite limited, considering how complicated and twisted it all is. But I still decided to vote, for a couple of reasons I suppose. One is because I just wanted to see how it was all organized, purely self-interest. Another reason, was a quasi-belief that I should vote, albeit for a lesser of two bads.

While waiting for my ballot, a Reuters man with a big white microphone wanted to interview me. Even though I spoke in English, I must admit my interview was horribly embarrassing. I really had no idea about the candidates, or even why exactly I was voting—especially to the capacity of explaining it succinctly to a microphone and bright lights. (Where are my lines!?)

Why are you voting?

“Well, it’s my first time to vote in Iran and I was interested to see how the whole process goes. I know it’s not much of a choice. But well, I decided to come anyway and make a choice.” (does that make sense!?)

Why have you chosen the candidates you are voting for?

“Um, I am voting for the reformist list. It’s sort of complicated to explain why I am voting for the specific candidates I have chosen.” (There is a list! I have no idea! Does anyone here??) Um…I am voting for those candidates I feel might have a better economic policy and development plan for the city. I am voting for the candidate I believe could solve the traffic problem.” (?!)

Man, I hope no one ever sees that footage. Actually I did know one candidate for whom I voted, the only one I didn’t steal from the list handed to me by a reformist party activist.

List of all the Candidates at Polling Station


Out of a total of 290 seats in 11 electoral units, Tehran has 30 seats, thus each voter in Tehran could choose up to 30 candidates. Therefore, campaigning in Tehran mainly consisted of each party or coalition creating a list of 30 candidates whom they support, and that you should go out and vote for. The mainstream political spectrum could be generally divided as follows:



  1. United Principlist Front (M Ahmadinejad) – 'Principlist' refers to principles of the 1979 revolution, which this group is devoted to. This was the strongest ticket on the elections, as it enjoyed the support of big business, military and segments of the religious elite. Its policies are based around the dominant issue of Iran's international politics – the further development of nuclear facilities.

  1. United Principlists Coalition (Ali Larijani) – As the name illustrates, this list also emphasizes its devotion to the principles of the 1979 revolution. What makes them different, are the methods and policies they support, which would indeed fight a similar cause as the United Priciplist Front. This list is headed by the so-called 'Pragmatist' current among Iran's political elite, and some of the representatives include ex-chief negotiator with IAEA Ali Larijani, mayor of Tehran Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and ex-chief of Revolutionary Guards and current Secretary of Expediency Council Mohsen Rezai. The pragmatist label appoints to the group's acknowledgement of the fact that world politics are dominated by Western powers, and their willingness to fight for the freedom to develop nuclear energy by negotiating with the West. They reject aggressive rhetoric, qualifying it as dangerous and counterproductive. Larijani's decision to run his campaign from Qom, the religious center of Iran, appoints to another important fact about the elections – this list appears to have support from the highest religious scholars who have been dissatisfied with some of the present tactics. It is also important to say that Tehran's list of candidates for this party shares 9 candidates with Ahmadinejad's list. This means that 9 people appear on both lists.

  1. The Party of Moderation and Development (Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani) – This party did not actually take part in the elections, as it pulled out completely the night before nominations were due, predicting that most of its candidates would be screened out by the Guardian Council. The decision perhaps had more to do with Rafsanjani's political calculations, in which he cannot afford to appear as a loser one more time. Rafsanjani, the president of Iran 1989-1997, is by far the most complex political figure in Iran; he is the head of the Council of Experts, a body that elects and reviews the Supreme Leader, yet he is associated with the reformists as well. He perceives himself as the only one who stands between the conservatives and reformists, friends with many key players on both sides, and supporting each of the sides on different occasions. Some Iranians feel that his lack of support for Khatami's government allowed the previously unknown Ahmadinejad to rise up as a frontrunner and win the elections in 2005. For these elections, although he stopped his own candidates from running, he announced his endorsement for several candidates mainly from Karrubi's list, but also from Larijani's and Khatami's lists.

  1. Trust of the Nation (Mahdi Karrubi) – This list represents one of the two main reformist streams. The two lists share some candidates as well, and are not bitterly opposed to each other. However, Karrubi's list is knows as 'pragmatic reformists', the more moderate comparing to Khatami's list. Unfortunately, most of the candidates from both reformist groups were screened out by the Guardian Council, to the extent that they did not have a mathematical chance of gaining a majority in parliament. (Karrubi, speaker of the parliament from 2000-2004 and 1989-1992, came third in the 2005 presidential elections. Although in a reformist bloc, he is known to be very close to the Supreme Leader)

  1. Association of Combatant Clerics (Mohammad Khatami) – The list appears to be at the far left end of the spectrum, as there are no political organizations, apart from some student groups, that are more agile in fighting for human rights, civil society freedom and similar social issues. The candidates of this list were mostly screened out of the competition, which means that the party did not have any chance of achieving positive results. Due to the fact that most candidates were forced out of the game, the party had to make a selection among the remaining independent candidates and create some sort of list. This list however did not strike voters as particularly prominent, at least in Tehran. Therefore, many reformist voters decided not to vote altogether as opposed to voting for candidates they knew nothing about, or who were not prominent enough to make any real progress.

List of 30 for the United Principlists Front
Note the surprise cameo apperance
(--it's actually a sticker advertisment for veterinarian nearby)

1 Week Earlier

Campaigning was officially allowed one week before Election Day. Campaigning in Tehran mostly involved the dissemination of individual leaflets and hanging party banners; TV and radio ads were banned. An individual was not allowed to have a banner or poster, only a party could, so people would usually paste up a bunch of small leaflets into the size of a poster.


Official GOTV "get out the vote" campaiging

Often the ‘campaign material’ consisted of thousands of little leaflets strewn around the sidewalks, seeping into the gutters and water canals. Several times I spotted some seemingly disaffected youth ‘passing out’ leaflets, they were actually just throwing them in the air behind their heads, laughing and chatting—perhaps they were paid some measly fee to pass out flyers (those flyers happened to be from the President’s list) which they didn’t really seem to care about.

As campaign week progressed, so did the critical urgency of shopping for the upcoming Nowruz holiday. It was truly madness, comparable to Christmas in the US or Europe. Among a list of other things to buy for the holidays, on Nowruz day you are supposed to wear a new set of clothes. Here, crazed shoppers searched for shoes out of the trunk of a car near Tajrish Market.


Strolling around the city during campaign week, aside from shops and markets, we actually passed several campaign headquarters and found it funny to walk in and check things out. Often the volunteers and activists didn’t really seem to have a plan, or at least not a good one. When I asked one guy (from the ultra-conservative party I found out later) why I should vote for his candidate he replied: “You can vote for whoever you want!” and continued to offer us tea and a place to sit.

I kept stressing the fact that I was new here, my first time voting, and that I would like to know more about the candidates, since I really had no idea about any of them.

One independent candidate whose headquarters we happened upon (the one I personally voted for outside the list system) was quite refreshing compared to the others who droned along with obscure and impersonal leaflets. He sat with us and served us tea, like all the others, but he really understood all my questions and answered them pretty well. He wanted to run on the reformist list, but there was no room and they offered to put him on their 2nd list, which he refused, deciding to run independently instead. He was an ex-manager of a big Iranian bank and, coming from an economic experience, he accordingly had an economic perspective and was using this in his campaign strategy. He and his team were focusing on the banking and economic community as their voter target group, and kept their communications within a sort of loose network. Instead of throwing out leaflets to anyone and everyone, they had a more personalized plan on whom to approach, how, and through different avenues, for example sending faxes to all the banks in Tehran, advertising in economic journals, and etc.

In Qom, Larijani’s campaign also seemed to have a decent strategy, with a focus on his position and experience in International politics, and his diplomatic nature.


Slobodan would often ask the question, he was just constantly itching to ask (his “ribs were itching” as they say here), “What would you do about the traffic problem? Terafik Terafik!” One guy replied: “Public transportation must be strengthened, especially the Metro. It’s the only way.” Agreed! But how!? When!??

If traffic is gone, however, so will one of the most frequently used excuses (I’m sure this can be statistically proven) in this city for why one is late somewhere, or didn’t show up altogether--which happens all the time. Those days, leading up to the New Year, the traffic was especially horrendous. Preoccupied with their shopping lists and with bargaining, no one seemed to be paying much attention to the campaigns, except for a couple bored old men who would collect all the leaflets and study them with patience, and of course us ‘tourists’ who found them all fascinating. Most of the leaflets actually looked more like CVs, exalting the personal qualities of each candidate: their academic title (“Doctor” was very common) and record, where they went to school, where they have worked, who they know, esteemed supporters, etc. There was rarely any mention of specific policies or strategies, but only general statements and individual attributes. Sometimes there would be a little nationalistic poem at the top of the flyer and a little photo of the candidate waving the Iranian flag in a bad suit. Interestingly however, there was rarely much to do with Islam, at least around north and central Tehran. Our favorite slogan was as follows: “There must be rain for the rainbow to appear.” (Interpret as you please)

Rainbow Man

Some Handsome Independent

Campaign Leaflet Envisioning Social Service

Campaign Headquarters of Armenian Candidate

Last minute campaigners for Khatami's so called reformist list

My Campaign

If I had one.

The Elections

These elections were the first ones in which the votes were counted by computers. (Another new rule for these elections was the new minimum voting age, up 18 from the previous minimum age of 15.) The ballot itself looked like a math test, the voter would darken boxes depicting a number in front of candidates’ names, and thus the ballot could be read by a computer. Since there was no way to put all the 1000+ candidates on the ballot, each candidate was allocated a unique code consisting of a series of numbers and letters, which you would fill in on the ballot. It was quite complicated (even for me the math genius ;) and took me about 20 minutes to fill in my 30 names. I messed up a couple times which was quite frustrating as I was working with a pen, and my legs kept going numb as there was no comfortable place where I could fill in my ballot.

The polls should have been closed at 6pm that evening, but they stayed open until about 11pm. The official explanation was that they wanted to accommodate “long lines of voters waiting to cast their ballots.” In reality there didn’t seem to be many long lines of voters, although they did keep the polls open later, probably in order to get higher turnout figures. The place I voted is famous for being one of the most popular places to vote, but I went through the line to receive my ballot and process my Identification in about 5 minutes.

The turnout, declared as a major victory, was said to be about 52% nationwide while only 30% in Tehran, although these percentages vary from source to source, and I’ve recently heard as low as 18% for Tehran. I could very generally divide the voters as such:

Who didn’t vote?
1. those who are apathetic, or don’t really have time and patience for politics
2. those who think none of the candidates are noteworthy, thanks to the vetting process
3. those who are boycotting – in a sense punishing reformists for their past mistakes

Who did vote?
1. those who believe in the system
2. those who believe the system can and should reform from within
3. those who still believe in choosing the lesser of 2 bads

Of course these may overlap, and I suppose I might fall somewhere between number 2 and 3 for those who voted (but mainly, I admit, I voted out of pure curiosity).

The results showed what was predicted: Conservatives won more than 70% of seats, Conservative seats are split almost evenly between the two lists, Reformists won about 15% of seats. There will be run-off elections for about 10% of the seats, as the election law requires candidates to win the votes of at least 25% of voters. Tehran, the stronghold of Reformists, elected 19 Conservatives, with the remaining 11 seats to be determined in run-off elections. This was likely due to the passive boycott of many reformist voters, although the Reformist coalitions did ask for a recount claiming there were irregularities in counting. I believe the Ministry has agreed to recount a selected number of random ballot boxes.

The results basically proved the 'Screening Process' to be highly effective, as it not only mathematically prevented Reformists from winning the elections, but also likely diminished the turnout of reformist-minded voters. Although initial news about the disqualification of so many candidates stirred up public opinion, it failed to cause any kind of stronger pressure on the establishment.

Another important result is the split between the 'Pragmatists' and “Fundamentalists' among conservatives (Although it is hard to make exact calculations as many elected MPs are yet to confirm their allegiance. Many MPs were endorsed by both sides, and many are yet to be recruited among the independent members of parliament). It seems that the battle for the position of the Speaker of the Parliament, between Mr. Larijani himself and the current Speaker of the Parliament Mr. Gholam Ali Haddad from the Fundamentalist coalition, will determine who has dominance over the Parliament.

The results might also show that not many Iranians are happy with Ahmadinejad's rule. Even if his coalition proves to be winning more votes than Mr. Larijani's, his power rests on a small majority, and thanks only to great measures to immobilize the opposition.

Many people say that the two conservative coalitions are not any different in terms of the ultimate goals they want to achieve. The difference lies only in regards to the strategies they support--one being more pragmatic the other reactionary or what has been labeled ‘firebrand’ politics. Strategies, however, are a very important part of politics and government (a similar example might be Democrats and Republicans in the US, in terms of foreign policy). If Pragmatists succeed in winning power, we might witness a different rhetoric coming out of Iran. This would coincide with wishes of many Iranians who are increasingly worried about Iran's alienation from mainstream world politics.

The most important domestic battle will certainly be the 2009 presidential elections. Many believe that Ahmadinejad will have a very tough opponent in the current Tehran mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, an important leader of the Pragmatist Conservative bloc.

These parliamentary elections were, perhaps, just a warm up for the main battle. They do show however that there is no single dominant political force in Iran and that the Iranian political scene is far from being monolith, as sometimes presented in Western media, even if the reformist parties have significantly weakened. The political arena, although heavily limited by an absence of freedom of media, arbitrary decisions of the government and the general lack of transparency, is still an active space for political battles. Many believe that the democratic tradition in Iran is very strong, however limited at the moment. I’m not sure to what extent I believe this, but there are definitely many signs of it, as well as many examples in the country’s history.

How democratic?

As for the rest, I guess we will have to wait and see...

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Nowruz Napping

Iran's four seasons are each clearly defined. On the morning of Nowruz - the Iranian New Year -20th of March, it felt like Spring literally happened overnight. All the buds on trees and bushes were green, ready to explode; a green fuzz sneaked slowly over the dried up grass; pink, yellow and purple flowers started making appearance. Neighborhood cats bulged with pouches of babies ready to pop out any minute. The Nowruz holiday lasts 2 weeks, and during these weeks the season developed into full bloom right before our eyes. It's probably one of the best Spring transformations I've seen. In Bosnia, I found out that they use the Persian word for spring, 'Bahar', as word for this very early spring sighting...those tiny green buds squeezing out after months of deep cold sleeping. And it's getting greener and greener each day.

ValiAsr is Green

Leading up the the New Year, shopping was a mad craze of bargaining and fighting, streets were extra crowed, with traffic at a near catastrophic peak (The amount of nationalistic Iran email I receive also reached its yearly peak. And BTW, the 'frozen cherry tree' is not in Iran, but South Africa). From Nowruz day, however, Tehran became a ghost town. People either stayed at home with family, and most left the city for the holidays. Some go to visit their families in towns and villages around Iran. Many of them go to Esfehan and Shiraz, where I happened to be headed a couple days later, along with my Mister (that's what people call him here).

Sleeping (dead) Fishes on the Nowruz Altar (Haft-Sin) at Park Mellat

"Agha Azad" at Esfehan's Friday Mosque

Millions of Iranian tourists pour into Esfehan and Shiraz, two of the country's gem cities, every year for Nowruz. The hotels get full, and thousands of people especially those from the poorer villages camp around the city. Esfehan was well-organized, and campers were designated to certain spots in the suburbs, so not to disturb the beauty of the city. In Shiraz however, it was what we call "khar to khar"("donkey to donkey"), or complete chaos. Campers were hitched everywhere: along highways, in the center squares, street roundabouts, and basically any square meter of space was fair game. And everywhere, everyone picnics. The best picnic spots were probably the ones along the Zayendehrud river in Esfehan, a picturesque river with breathtaking historical bridges.

Zayenderud River - "33 Bridge"

In one of many unforgettable encounters, after dodging the morality police who scopes the town for bad hejab (famous in more conservative Esfehan), we joined an Esfehani family along a quiet bubbling section of the river one evening. They offered us the most delicious homemade Saffron-Honey wine, which was tasted along with sweets made of honey and sesame. Then we sat back to a feast, with music and singing. (Often in Iran, you will be sitting with some people or even just walking by some place, and someone will just start singing a song or reciting a poem which everyone knows by heart, if you're lucky they will also play an instrument such as the Setar or Daf which happens to be on hand-- it happens all the time!)

Esfehan is one of the amazing cities I've visited (though my Shirazi family may not be happy about this), and I can't possibily begin to describe it here. I can just say that there is this fantastic vibe in the air, which I felt both times I was here. It is laid-back, like a breath of fresh air, but very organized and clean with wide sidewalks shaded by rows of trees, tranquil Persian fountains, and full of magnificent world wonders. They call it "Esfehan Nesf-e Jahan" (Esfehan Half the World) for good reason. Walking through the easy streets we felt like we just had an uplifting spa treatment, especially coming from the chaos of Tehran. Perhaps some time I'll work up the courage to dedicate a full post to this magical city...But I would like to thank our lovely host, dear grandmother of a friend, who constantly doted on us, especially on Mister Azad (this is Slobodan's name in Iran for those hard of pronunciation--meaning the same thing in both Serbian and Persian: 'free'), cooked us food and made us laugh. She would ask me repeatedly: "Is Agha Azad ok? Isn't he bored? Poor thing can't understand us! What does Agha Azad want? Isn't he hungry?" And when Agha Azad danced Iranian style for the whole family one evening, they were shocked and thrilled, as he carried on dancing all night at times performing a one man show--showcasing his infamous 'snake' moves. "Irani hastam!" he would say with a cheesy grin.

After 3 days in Esfehan we went to Shiraz for some family fun. Night after night they spend together until the wee hours of the night during the entire 2 weeks - a phenomena laid-back (also known as lazy) Shirazis are famous for especially during the holidays. Sometimes we only started eating dinner at midnight, this of course preceded by loads of nuts, fruit and various snackies and followed by tea, sweets, poetry and singing.

Unfortunately, Shiraz was really too crowded to enjoy, especially given that the best thing about the city are not its sights but its poetic traditions, peaceful gardens and laid-back character, which were just destroyed by the chaotic crowds. One highlight however, was when my old grumpy uncle played backgammon with Mister Azad, and kept trying to cheat.

Back in Tehran, yesterday was "Sizdah Be Dar" (or "13th day, Outdoors!"), the last day of the 2 week Nowruz stretch. It truly felt like the first day of Spring here in Tehran. Traditionally on this day everyone goes outdoors for picnics and frolicking in parks with family and friends, good luck against the bad omen of the number '13'. Park Mellat, like all green areas of the city, near my house was teeming with picnickers, rollerbladers, people playing badminton, volleyball and football. Boys' shiny new spiky hairdos reached into the sky, and girls puffed out their bangs under shiny hejabs. Jubilant people licked on "meter" tall ice creams swirling high above cheap dainty cones. Inside the park, crowds swayed and clapped along to a live music performance blasting on a typically loud, bad sound system.

Wheat sprouts ('Sabzeh' - grown for the Nowruz altar, and set free into a body of water on this last day) littered the water canals and clogged up the waterways along with the trash. Street workers merely swept the trash downstream, only for it to inevitably get stuck somewhere causing a flood into Vali Asr. Some of the 'Sabzeh' were thrown into the streams still inside their heavy ceramic pots or dishes, sinking to the ground, and we even spotted a few thrown to the canal in a plastic sac! (Plastic, seen as a symbol of modernity, is very interesting here...I'm still trying to figure it out)

"Sabzeh" in Purgatory

Just as things were first coming into bloom, approaching the time of year Iran is most famous for, I had a thought. After that blistering winter, when Spring was miraculously reborn, I realized that homeless people must be the most happy for the arrival of this wonderful season. Because there is nothing like sleeping outside. And along with the frolicking, eating and lovemaking...there is of course the infamous spring napping...

"No Reading Please, Only Napping"

...Esfehan Post-lunch Naps...

Shiraz Shop-owner Napping

Post-Kabob Pass-Out
(I'm sure most Iranians are familiar with this concept)

Midday Napping in Esfehan's Bazaar
Doesn't he look comfortable?

Barber Shop Window Napping

Bacchus, Sound Asleep (rarrrr!)

I know I haven't been around the last weeks, so please forgive me for not making calls or writing. You can say I was taking a long Spring nap. Sal-e No Mobarak to all my friends and family. We were always thinking of you...

Happy Spring Everyone