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Iran’s Populism at The Polls

Iran’s presidential election, set for May 19, has been transformed into a battlefield for a gamut of populists. Some candidates from among the top political elite have downgraded their economic manifestos to unattainable demagogic promises, writes Radio Farda economy analyst Fereidoun Khavand in two recent Persian language op-eds.

From an economist’s viewpoint, populist politicians are demagogues who seek power by making empty promises such as cash handouts and rosy outlooks for employment and millions of new jobs. All of these promises are made without saying where or how the necessary fund would be acquired.

Those in high office who seek to keep their posts by giving out subsidies and employing more people for pointless government posts and public services could also be described as populists.

Populist politicians do not care about real reforms, improvements to the economy, or much-needed structural change.

The outcome, of course, is economic stagnation, a lack of good jobs, and more suffering for the working classes.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Iran’s Mahmud Ahmadinejad are the epitome of such ruinous populism. Today, we can clearly see the horrifying results of their populistic management in Caracas and Tehran.

However, it’s true that not all politicians who promise to raise people’s incomes and reduce unemployment are necessarily populists. As a rule, all politicians seeking power in any given corner of the globe promise to improve economic conditions. But in countries enjoying an open and established civil society, the media and opposition political parties play a significant role in scrutinizing campaign promises.

Undemocratic Elections

Time and again, we have seen that Iran’s electoral system is not fair or free. Candidates are disqualified arbitrarily. Minority and women candidates are disqualified. There are no political parties that represent the people. The nation is divided into us and them. Only those who belong to the ruling clique are allowed to run for official posts; even nominees who are counted among “us” could be subject to a harsh filtering procedure and eliminated by the elections vetting body, the Guardian Council.

The situation has some echoes of South Africa’s experience during the rule of apartheid.

South Africa’s black majority were free to vote but only for the white candidates picked by the minority white ruling class.

It would be overly generous to describe the electoral procedure in Iran as even remotely fair, free, or democratic.

During the presidential campaigns and debates, there is no legally protected framework or even sufficient time to discuss the reasons behind the closure of factories, continually rising unemployment, the endless brain-drain, or the ever-worsening water shortages threatening the future of the country.

The banking system is in shambles. Arbitrary tax exemption for financial empires, money-laundering, corruption, and embezzlement are all forbidden topics. A candidate is only allowed to mention any of these for the purpose of smearing a rival -- not as valid criticism of the established system.

Furthermore, candidates are given no chance to debate Iran’s foreign policy. Other important matters such as poverty, housing, drug addiction, women’s and minority rights, and insolvency of retirement funds -- to name but a few -- are completely absent from the Iranian presidential campaigns and debates.

Paying Cash, Gaining Votes

In the absence of a healthy debate on vital matters, Iran brings in male candidates willing to ignore national or international concerns. Most candidates are armed only with obsolete slogans and promises of cash for everyone in the hopes of gaining votes. Those cash subsidies became a reality in Ahmadinejad’s second term as president, but critics immediately called it the “great catastrophe.” Tens of billions of dollars disappeared while adding nothing to the nation’s infrastructure.

It is now a foregone conclusion that handing out cash might gain votes, but it would be ruinous or even lethal for the national economy. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped most of the current candidates from following Ahmadinejad’s example. Populism, once again, is the name of the game.

Conservative candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has promised cash handouts to the unemployed, which constitute a huge army by any estimation. He and the other hard-line candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, have also promised 6 million new jobs in the next four years, which would mean double-digit annual economic growth. Iran’s average economic growth over the past three decades has been around 3 percent.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution overthrew the shah under the banner of populism. One can clearly see the traces of populism in the constitution, which talks about implementing a so-called Islamic Plan to pave the way for equality, jobs, and a prosperous future for all.

Nobody questioned the feasibility of such an Islamic Plan. Nobody demanded details or questioned the tools or resources needed to implement it. It was a shining example of populism, but nobody cared to put it under any sort of professional scrutiny.

Alas, the sad story of populism continues in Iran to this day. The only way to close the chapter of populism is to open the windows of economic and political facts and letting people see the realities for what they are.

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    Fereydoun Khavand

    Fereydoun Khavand is a French-Iranian economist living in Paris. He has been teaching at various French universities and is a regular contributor to Radio Farda as an economic analyst.