Byron Scott, professor emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: The United States is recovering from a long string of elections, but a significant portion of the world has gone to the polls recently, or will be soon. The three elections I refer to are: the elections, which are held every five years for the 736-member European Parliament; the election that was held last week in Lebanon, which returned to office what is regarded as a pro-Western coalition; and a very important election (Friday) in Iran, where there is thought that a major transformation may be in the offing. What is going on in Tehran?
Borzou Daragahi, Middle East correspondent, Los Angeles Times, Tehran, Iran: Right now, it is very quiet. Campaigning officially ended (Thursday) morning at 8 a.m., and no more campaigning is allowed. People will go to the polls (Friday) morning at 8 a.m. sharp. It is a critical election that pits the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against three contenders. The front-runner is Mir Hossein Mousavi, former prime minister of Iran. Also running is Mehdi Karroubi, former parliamentary speaker, and Mohsen Rezai, who is the former commander of the Revolutionary Guard and now a secretary of the Expediency Council — an important state organ. This election is a referendum on the performance of Ahmadinejad over the last four years — his foreign and economic policy. Many people in rural areas, the poor and lower middle-class, benefited from his populist giveaways and low-interest loans. However, the middle-class, educated, intelligentsia and ethnic minorities were hurt by Ahmadinejad’s nationalist Islamist hard-line policies. These two groups are being pitted against each other in this election.
Hossein Seifzadeh, retired professor of political science and law at the University of Tehran, scholar at Mid-East Institute, Los Angeles: Iran has an anchor of continuity in the supreme leader, but it is a major change. For the first time, all the candidates are talking about their strategic plan. A part of the poor people also are supporting Mousavi because he is trying to incorporate more rationalism and pragmatism rather than populism. When talking about democracy, Iran should not be compared to the West. Iran is just starting to build up toward democracy. Most Iranians are patriotic, but they are not ultra-nationalists — their nationalism is not versus the U.S. Iranians want to integrate both into the Middle East as a Muslim country and into the strategic interests of the international community. These two components are determining the international aspect of Iranian politics in this round of elections.
Scott: Tell us about the vote that was held over several days this past week in 27 European Union nations for the European Parliament.
Ann Cahill, Europe correspondent, Irish Examiner, Brussels, Belgium: It contrasts interestingly with the Iranian and Lebanese elections because there is a vitality and great interest in the latter two, by their people and the world generally. Whereas, the elections in Europe, the biggest transnational elections ever held, involving 380 million voters, can be characterized by the people being jaded by democracy. The turnout was low at 43 percent and has been falling steadily since the first elections about 30 years ago. In some countries the turnout was 19 percent.
Scott: Tell us about the trend line in that election.
Cahill: While these were European Parliament elections, they were actually national elections in each country. The governments and parties failed to make them trans-national and involved primarily domestic issues. Many of the governments are in mid-term and don’t really care that much. Center-right governments in the big member states — France, Germany, Italy — did very well and have consolidated their hold on the parliament. There are quite a few people who never got beyond the question of whether there should even be a European Union — the Euro-skeptics — even though it is developing at a rapid pace. This group took 15 percent of the seats; many of them are far right. Center-left voters seem to have stayed at home. The Green Party also was a big winner. Across Europe, the issues are jobs and the economy, though most people did not make the link to the E.U. parliament.
Scott: How much of the elections in Lebanon and Iran tie into issues of living conditions and the economy?
Seifzadeh: There is a turn in Iranian politics from international to domestic issues. Domestically, both democracy and economy are very important, also anti-corruption. Universities are having a major role again after being under a lot of pressure over the last four years. Economically, populism and give-away money have been the approach to the economy. Mousavi is planting (tying) this argument to anti-corruption. Mousavi is talking about coexistence, to have a kind of detente with the U.S.
Daragahi: Although the economy is an underlying issue, it is not the principle issue, either in Lebanon or Iran. The Lebanon election was really about which direction the country is going; in the direction of Hezbollah, Syria, Iran or in the direction of the West — Saudi Arabia, France and the U.S. The election was decided in favor of Western access. It was also about whether General Michel Aoun would become the premier leader of Lebanon’s Christian community. Lebanon is unusual for a Middle Eastern country because it has multiple sects competing with each other in a small but extraordinarily wealthy country full of resources. The Iranian election is also hinging on national identity. Is Iran going back to the militant values of the Revolution, as represented by Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader Ali Khomeini? Or, does Iran want to modernize itself towards the direction of democracy and open itself up toward the rest of the world?
Scott: How much effect does President Obama’s foreign policy have?
Seifzadeh: Obama was influential because he said he does not want to interfere with Iran’s internal affairs. This soothed the ultra-patriotic feeling of Iranians, an important contrast to the previous administration.
Daragahi: Obama did not directly affect the election in Lebanon, nor in Iran. But, for years, analysts in Iran were saying that if Bush and Cheney would just shut up for six months, the internal contradictions of Iran’s system would bubble to the surface and they could resolve some of the big issues and moderate foreign policy. When Iran has this big enemy outside threatening to hit it with a club, it feeds the power of hard-liners. Obama has lowered the international temperature and created the space for moderates in Iran, maybe even in Lebanon, to emerge and not be tainted as foreign stooges.
Scott: It seems the Euro-skeptic block is growing in the European Parliament on the basis of these elections. It has been expressed as having a group in the European Parliament that does not want to have a European Parliament.
Cahill: Yes. Some new member states are quite Euro-skeptic, also the British Tory Conservatives, who will be in power soon, have large numbers. Many of the Tories are not exactly Euro-skeptics but want to leave the E.U. In Parliament, Euro-skeptics usually find it difficult to agree enough on other issues to form a group, which requires 25 MEPs from seven different countries.
Scott: What will be the longer term importance of the elections in these countries?
Daragahi: In Iran, the significance for the government is the turnout. Khomeini says that every vote cast in the election is a vote of support for Iran’s unique Islamic system. Many people tending towards the moderate anti-government stance won’t vote because they truly do not believe in the system. The challenge has always been to get those people to the polls, to counter the more radical elements inside the regime. That is the question: Will those people come out and vote against Ahmadinejad to usher in a new president?
Seifzadeh: It is important to transcend this populist momentum during this election to a kind of pluralism, which will be hard.
Cahill: In Europe, a low turnout shows that the national governments aren’t interested in engaging their own citizens in the E.U. If they don’t, there will be more questioning of the value of the European Parliament and indeed the E.U.
Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Geoff George and Brian Jarvis. The transcriber is Pat Kelley. Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the regular moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at globaljournalist.org