Even in a Tainted Election, Voting Still Matters

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AFP/ Getty

Iran's official Al-Alam television shows Ahmadinejad supporters in central Tehran on June 16, 2009. A ban on foreign media limited coverage of the day's events

Four years ago, during a similarly sultry Tehran summer, I had an argument with Shirin Ebadi about whether Iranians should vote in their country's presidential elections. The human-rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate believed that Iranians should boycott the vote. She argued coolly that people's participation lent legitimacy to an undemocratic regime's flawed electoral process. At the time, I found her view frustratingly staid, the stance of someone who had lost touch with young people's immediate concerns. I felt that boycotting elections made a prize of abstract ideals over daily realities. I had experienced Iran in both the repressive late 1990s and the relatively more open years of reformist President Mohammed Khatami, and not choosing a more open government — however imperfect the process of choice — seemed inconceivable to me.

That summer of 2005, many Iranians actually heeded Ebadi's call and boycotted the vote. This helped the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the firebrand leader who proceeded to gut the country's economy and sully Iran's reputation in the world. Reformist politicians, whose candidates had fared badly at the polls, told moderate Iranians that they were to blame for Ahmadinejad's victory. If the so-called silent majority — the millions of middle-class, educated Iranians who seek more freedom and economic opportunity — had voted, the emerging wisdom went, then the country wouldn't have been lost to the lunatic with the peculiar Windbreaker.

In the four years that followed, many Iranians bitterly regretted their decision not to vote. I was living in Beirut in 2005, and failed to cast my ballot at the Iranian embassy there. When I moved to Iran later that year and began to suffer the slowly emerging consequences of Ahmadinejad's victory, I scolded myself daily. Ambivalence and laziness had gotten the better of me, and I deserved to suffer the consequences. I also scolded all my friends and relatives who hadn't voted. When they complained about double-digit inflation, a real estate price hike of 150%, five-hour lines for gas (the government had botched a plan to drop gas subsidies), Internet censorship, government plans to facilitate polygamy and gender segregation in classrooms, I told them they were to blame, not Islamic theocracy. They had chosen not to elect a better leader.

Even as recently as six months ago, many in Iran were ambivalent about voting in this election. "Why should I bother to vote when my vote isn't respected?" a shopkeeper in eastern Tehran said to me. His wife, he said, was already hectoring him to vote. "She thinks it will make a difference. She'll probably make me in the end." Given the inertia and skepticism that reigned just a few months ago, the sudden energizing of public sentiment in the three weeks preceding the election was extraordinary. Seemingly overnight, Iranians sloughed their cynicism and began to follow the campaign avidly. Whatever you attributed this to — a delayed realization of what was at stake, the contagious energy of a youthful campaign that began taking to the streets — the sense of responsibility Iranians began to feel for the election's outcome was tremendous and unprecedented.

Relatives and friends that I never expected to vote decided to participate. From Tabriz to Tehran to Mashhad, from Bonn to London to Virginia, they waited in long lines at polling stations, determined not to let the country slide further into penury and isolation, not to let 2005 repeat itself. I was thrilled when some friends e-mailed to say I had helped encourage them to vote. I recently published a memoir of life in Iran under Ahmadinejad, invoking in detail how destructive it was to boycott elections. I wrote about the day I was led off to a police van, my baby in tow, because a teenage policewoman considered my sleeves too short. This sort of experience spurred my own desire to vote, to try to change the grim, Talibanesque country Iran had become under Ahmadinejad.

Though people outside Iran tend to believe that the country's elections are always rigged, the truth, at least until recently, was that the regime manipulated results by only a fraction of percentage points. I never imagined that the election could be hijacked entirely, that fraud could be committed on such an enormous scale. In the decade that I've covered Iran as a journalist, it seemed the regime still cared too much about its legitimacy to tamper dramatically with the people's will. The constitution, after all, enshrines the will of the people as the basis for sovereignty, and the pretense of democracy has characterized Iran's revolution as much as political Islam.

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