In Iran, this time the problem is there's no opposition; it's cons (conservatives) against neo-cons.
The Green Movement leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife, Dr Zahra Rahnavard, as well as Mehdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest for over a year now; echoing Myanmar's Aung Suu Kyi, but more vocally, they have repeatedly stressed they will not "repent."
Virtually all key opposition leaders, including university activists, almost 1,000 people, are in jail; not because they're criminals but because they're very canny organizers of popular anger.
The most influential opposition groups have in fact been outlawed -- and that even includes groups of clerics and the Islamically correct Association of Teachers and Scholars in the holy city of Qom. No fewer than 42 influential journalists are also in jail.
The absolute majority of the reformist press has been shut down. Non-government organizations such as the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, founded by Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, have been outlawed.
A short definition of these elections would be something like this; a byzantine scheme of power-sharing between political groups representing a very small elite, while large swathes of the population -- and their representatives -- are totally sidelined.
Essentially, this will be a fierce battle between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So why do these elections matter so much?
Welcome to the Islamic UFC
Khamenei-Ahmadinejad is now a cage match. Stripped to the bone, it's the fight between the ayatollah and the man with a halo over his head that will set the stage for the next presidential election, in June 2013 -- when in the best of possible worlds there will be an Obama II, and the specter of war might have been averted.
Whenever lazy, prejudiced and nuance-adverse Western corporate media refer to Iran, it's all about "the mullahs." No; it's infinitely more complicated than that.
Khamenei is betting on an "epic event" of an election involving a turnout of at least 60%. That's far from a given -- and that's why the regime is pulling no punches. This Wednesday, the Leader himself laid out his view of what's at stake: "Thanks to divine benevolence, the Iranian nation will give a slap harder than the previous ones in the face of Arrogance [as in the US] and will show its decisiveness to the enemy so that the front of Arrogance understands that it can't do anything when confronting this nation."
Yet this is more about the internal front than the "front of Arrogance." At this supremely delicate stage, Khamenei badly craves legitimacy. He needs to show that he is in charge, widely respected, that most Iranians still believe in the current Islamic Republic system, and thus ignored the opposition's call to boycott the elections.
The economy is a disaster, to a certain extent because of Western sanctions but most of all because of the Ahmadinejad administration's cosmic corruption and astonishing incompetence. The Khamenei camp is actively stressing the point, while positioning the Leader above it all.
Finally there's the "front of Arrogance" -- the non-stop threats of an attack by Israel, the US or both. Khamenei needs the graphic proof -- in the polling booth -- the country is united against foreign intervention.
The role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is also key. We should not forget: this is now a military dictatorship of the mullahtariat. The IRGC badly wants to control the Majlis -- for their own reasons.
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