Ahwaz: Election Report in Ahwaz Province
They recognized, very correctly, that the way to regain their plundered rights is to work hand in hand with the other nationalities and ethnic groups for a free and democratic Iran. The council (shora) elections [of February 2003] proved that the Arab people of Khuzestan have nothing to do with those who follow a violent and separatist discourse. They have gone even a step further, by placing three women at the top of the list of elected candidates for the city council of Ahwaz, the provincial capital of Khuzestan province. They proved that, contrary to the anti-Arab propaganda, the Arabs of Khuzestan, more than any other group, respect their wives, mothers and sisters.
In a previous article, I have written of the role of the ethnic groups in the council elections. I predicted that in Tehran, the civic organizations of the ethnic groups, due to organizational, political and financial weaknesses, could not compete with either the conservatives or the Reformers’ national parties. Nevertheless, the ethnic groups played their parts in places such as Balouchestan, Kurdestan, Mehabad and Khuzestan.
The rise and the victory of the parties and the personalities of our Arab compatriots in most Khuzestan cities and villages was significant. This has been an important democratic development and should be viewed as a good omen. Of course in a number of past elections, native Turks and Kurds, with various political leanings, were elected in provinces such as Azerbaijan, Ardabil, Zanjan and Kurdestan. In Khuzestan too, representatives of our Arab compatriots were elected to parliaments and councils, at various points in time. The difference between Khuzestan and the other provinces is that in the past 70-80 years, and after the removal of the Arabs from positions of power, a strong non-Arab minority was created in its major cities.
What made the recent municipal council elections somewhat special, was that, first, there was a relative degree of freedom. Second, the Arabs participated with independent names and labels. And thirdly, not only did Arabs win the majority of council seats in cities where they traditionally would have won, but also, in cities in which Arab representatives were either in the minority or were not represented at all.
The elections of February 2003 carried a lot of political, social and historical lessons to be learned by both the Arab people of Khuzestan, and other people of Iran. Particularly, political forces and parties have to pay mind to these lessons, and we need to be aware and take note of the significance of these loccurances.
We begin with Ahwaz, which is the main city of the Province and also the 6th largest city of the country. More than 176,000 of the 500,000, or 35% of the populations who were eligible to vote, did so in the Ahwaz city council elections. In comparison to other major cities in Iran, and also in comparison with international standards, this is an acceptable participation.
Now, the reasons why more Khuzestanis voted in this election. Firstly, it is due to the fact that the elections were conducted in a relatively free manner. Secondly, there was the presence of a tough and intense element of ethnic competition during the election.
In one corner of this competition, there were the native Arab personalities and their political parties. In the other corner were the candidates of the other (non-Arab) ethnic minorities, who reside in the main cities of the province. Certainly, there was political competition among candidates of the same ethnic groups as well, but it was minor competition and not a deciding factor.
The Lurs and Bakhtiari, two ethnic minorities that make up about 10 to 15% of the population, entered into a coalition and managed to come up with the second alternative.One of their candidates was Ziba Salepour who received 24,000 of the votes, and was second only to Syeed Mehdi Al-Bu Shoka, who was the first alternative. Al-Bu Shoka is a Khuzestani Arab Syeed (descendent of the Prophet Mohammad).
Analysis of the election results in the city of Ahwaz shows the following:
In the first city council elections, held in 1998, the 70% strong Arab majority population of the city could only secure a minority position in the city council. Also, in the national parliamentary elections of the year 2000, only one Arab representative was elected to the parliament. However, in the last five previous parliamentary elections, the Arabs of Ahwaz often send three and sometimes two representatives to the Islamic [National] Parliament; but none of those representatives run as an independent Arab candidates. However, eight of the nine Arab winners of the second Ahwaz councils ran on the ticket of the Al-Wafagh [Harmony] Islamic Party, which basically is a nationalist Arab-Islamic party that also considers itself to be a reformist party.
Syeed Naser Mousawi was the only elected councilman who was not on the Al-Wafagh party ticket. In the first council election four years ago, Mr. Mousawi received the most votes in Ahwaz. The majority who voted for him were Arabs. In this election (second round ), Naser came in fourth.
The emergence of three women at the top of the elected list was unprecedented for Iran; further, people were astonished that it came from the Arabs. The fourth and fifth top vote-getters were two Syeeds, who enjoy a respectable position among the common [Shi’a] people.
To show its democratic spirit, and despite the criticism of some Arab groups, the Al-Wafagh party included Hamid Reza Salehi, a Bakhtiari, on its list. Unfortunately, he did not get enough votes. In other words, the Arab masses, contrary to the views of their intellectuals, did not choose this non-Arab. There is some significance to this. Mr. Hamid Reza Salehi, who publishes a local weekly newspaper, did the Arabs a service by including a section in Arabic in his weekly paper. He was also on the list of the candidates of the Lurs and Bakhtiari coalition.
It must be noted that the Al-Wafagh party, learning from its previous experience, persuaded many independent candidates to step down so that the bulk of the Arab vote would be more effective. In spite of Wafagh’s recommendations, some Arab candidates ran as independents. However, their participation in the election was not a serious challenge to the Al-Wafagh party. Al-Wafagh entered into the political arena only four years ago, on the eve of the first council’s elections, under the name of Lejnat Al-Wafagh [the Harmony Committee].
The significance of the victory of the Al-Wafagh party in particular, and the Arab candidates in general in Ahwaz, is better understood when we learn that this party, in comparison to other non-Arab candidates, had far fewer financial resources and weaker non-Arab political backing.
For example M.R., a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and presently a high positioned individual in the regime’s hierarchy, who happens to be a Bakhtiari, made a three-day trip to Ahwaz during the election campaigns. It has been said that he spoke in favor of the Lur and Bakhtiari coalition at certain societies and in some circles. Of course, his favorite candidates received the second, third, and fourth alternative positions. Also major national leaders and personalities such as Dr. Ibrahim Yazdi, Ezzatallah Negahban, Ezzatallah Sohabi, Dr. Payman, Tahereh Langeroudi, Varjavand, Alijani, Parvin Bakhtiari, and their fellow travelers to Ahwaz, published a statement in the national papers, supporting the candidacy of Mrs. Kahzadi, who is not an Arab. Dr Payman went a step further when he attended the meeting of her supporters in Ahwaz. But this lady did not garnish enough votes to even be an alternative.
These two examples give you a picture of the intensity of the rivalries in the recent elections of the city council in Ahwaz.
Now, obviously every one is free to choose any candidate they wish to support, but one would have expected such noted personalities to pay at least the slightest bit of attention to their Arab countrymen; they could have included at least one or two native Arabs in their approved list of candidates, or attended one or two of their meetings. They could have done that, at least for appearance’s sake, if nothing else. That way, they could have attracted the confidence of their Arab countrymen.
This was expected from Dr. Payman more than anyone else. He is apparently classified as being on the left side of the nationalist-religious group, and in the sixth presidential elections, entered the campaign with the slogan of equality for the ethnic groups. His qualification was rejected in that summer of 1997, as we know. This latest move by Dr. Payman in Ahwaz shows that either his slogan is losing its appeal, or that he basically does not consider 3.5 million Arabs as an ethnic group, or as Iranians.
At any rate, the election of the city councils showed the extent of these gentlemen’s nationalism, as well as the extent of their religiosity. It is possible that they think a nationalist must only come from their own ethnic group; you know a “one of us” type mentality. And other Iranians, Arab Iranians in particular, do not fall within this category. It seems that the above named individuals and most of the Iranian political forces, have no analysis or understanding of the Iranian ethnic groups, particularly no understanding of the Arab Iranians. Their racial presumptions have always influenced their political actions.
Recently in a newspaper interview, Taghi Rahmani, who belongs to the honest forces of this current, said that the defeat of the reformers in the council elections was due to not paying attention to three segments of society: women, youth and ethnic groups.
I don’t know if the other nationalist-religious personalities are aware of his views and agree with his analysis, or if maybe Mr. Rahmani has reached that conclusion on his own just recently.
Mr. Ibrahim Yazdi also missed the point. His message was defeated and his party was unsuccessful in Tehran, in Ahwaz, as well as in other Iranian cities’ reelections. In an interview with E’temad newspaper, he called the results of the election a prelude to the social and geographical disintegration of Iran.
According to his point of view, the defeat of Nehzat Azadi and the nationalist-religious forces in Ahwaz and other parts of Khuzestan, meant a prelude to the disintegration [of Iran]. But of course, if his approved candidates had won, it would have been a prelude for unity! Dr Yazdi insinuates that the Arab-majority of the main cities of Khuzestan should have voted for his approved minority-affiliated candidates so that the geographical disintegration of Iran could be avoided.
The reformist groups, especially Jebhe Mosharekat, despite their knowledge of the provincial leadership of the ethnic make-up of Ahwaz and other cities of Khuzestan, did not exhibit fairness in the presentation of their list of candidates for the Ahwaz city council. They included only two Arabs in the nine-candidate list. These actions by the reformists drew Arabs protests, and eventually led to the resignation of Ibrahim Ameri, the deputy first secretary of the Jebhe Mosharekat Front in Khuzestan; a resignation that ultimately will lead to the weakening of the Jebhe Mosharekat and the Reformists in the Province.
This election, just like the previous ones, showed that the reformist groups, and other internal opposition in Iran, do not have a fair or calculated approach to the question of ethnic groups, particularly in regard to the Arabs of Khuzestan. Their approach is an elitist one, and in a way, a superiority-seeking approach.
It must be said that the majority of these forces and parties do not have a plan or strategy or program to resolve the question of ethnic nationalities. I hope that the victory of the national Arab parties and personalities in Khuzestan, and to a certain extent [the Kurdish candidate’s victory] in Kurdistan, has given cause for these friends to be more sensitive to the warnings of Taghi Rahmani and to the views of the Khuzestani Arab political activists and human rights advocates.
There is no doubt that the forces of the left - the democrats and the reformists - are natural allies in the movement to obtain rights for Iran's ethnic groups.
But for this alliance to materialize, these forces need to start looking at the human rights of the ethnic groups from an equal footing perspective.
The slogan of the Al-Wafagh in the second council election was "justice, development and harmony", which is a meaningful slogan. It means that the Arabs of Khuzestan are seeking justice, development, and harmony with the other ethnic groups of the province.
The truth is that the real weight of the Arabs of Khuzestan was reflected by the council election results. Therefore, the key positions and appointments that are distributed unfairly right now should be redirected in accordance with the above results (or at least 85% Arab and 15 % non-Arab). Presently the reverse proportion is true.
The foundation of tribalism is still influential with the common Arab folks.
In the past, each tribe used to nominate its candidate, which resulted in the dilution of the Arab vote. Therefore, the Al-Wafagh party attempted to counter this by nominating one candidate from each tribe.
Najma Hamid from the Al-Hamid tribe
Belghis Beit Mash’al from Bani Torof tribe
Manijeh jasim Nejad, from Zergan tribe
Said Al-Kathir from Al-Kathir tribe
Ghamandar Ghazi from Al-Ghaz
Aidan Naseri from Nawaser tribe
Hadi Sawari from Sawari tribe.
Besides tribal affiliations, geographical considerations also went into choosing the candidates.
Bani Torof and Sawari are mainly to the west of the Karoun; Nawaser in Kut Abdallah and southern Ahwaz. Zergan and Al-Hamid are from the northern and western parts of the Province.
It must be mentioned that the sheiks and traditional tribal leaders did not have much of an active role in the election process. The candidates themselves were not known for their tribal affinity. In fact, their association with Al-Wafagh Party was a sign of their breakaway from traditional tribalism and joining of civic institutions. But the clever blending of the two entities, the tribe and the party, or tradition and modernism, by the Al-Wafagh party leadership, was an innovative approach to blending democracy with the native institutions of the Khuzestani Arabs.
In Abadan, six Arabs and three non-Arabs entered the city council. Arabs were a minority in the first city council, although Naji Mazra’a, the head of the first city council, was an Arab. In Arvand-Kenar (Ghasba), which is a part of Abadan, of the five elected council members, four (a woman among them) are Arab and one is non-Arab. Al-Wafagh Party had no activity in Abadan; tribalism and ethnic rivalries were the driving forces that dominated the elections.
The results of the election reflected the ethnic make-up of the city (65% Arab and 35 % non-Arab), and also showed the role of the tribes such as Ka’b – Mhaisin, Thawamer, the Sadat and some Arab sheiks.
There was a time when it was the leftist and workers’ parties that spoke the first word and had the upper hands in Abadan, but with the war and its aftermath and consequences, the political and social scene of the city changed. Of course in the past, tribal and ethnic issues also had their roles in Abadan, but they were overshadowed by Labor’s issues.
Abadan too needs the activities of political parties and other ethnic and civic associations similar to Al-Wafagh, so that civic rivalries overtake tribal ones in the elections. The Ahwaz experience can be effective in Abadan and other major cities of Khuzestan.
The issue of assigning governmental positions and posts in Abadan is even worse than it is in Ahwaz, and needs to be adjusted according to the results of the elections. Basically, proportionate assigning of key posts (70% Arab and 30% non-Arab) is needed there. Presently, the Arabs have only 10 to 15% of such posts.
Elections in Khoramshahr and Other Cities:
In the first city council of the city of Khoramshahr (Mohammara), whose population is 85% Arab, there were five Arab and two non-Arab members. But in this election, all seven elected were Arabs. A mixture of ethnic, tribal and religious tendencies had a role in the competition and ultimate victory of these Arab candidates in Khoramshahr. There was a shift of power within the religious establishment in the city. Until recently, a religious (Arabic) group [tendency] was the main axis in the elections. But during the last election of the councils, this tendency lost its effectiveness. One of the supporters of the rival religious group overtook his rival by 9000 votes. There is no doubt that Khoramshahr also has a need for the development of civic, cultural, political and ethnic institutions so that they can also play their roles in competing with the traditional institutions of tribalism and religious sects.
In each of the following four cities: Soosangerd (Khafajieh), Bostan-Howaiezah and Rafi’, which are part of the Dasht Azadegan Shahrestan (municipality), and in the townships of Bani Torof and Howaizah, everyone elected was Arab. This is natural, since almost 100% of the population in this area is Arab. The results were the same in Shadegan (Falaheih) for the same reason.
In this election cycle in Dasht-Azadegan and Shadegan, tribal affiliation had the final word. However despite tribal influence, some of the Arab youth, following the example of Ahwaz, founded their own social and civic associations. But their giant rival, namely the tribal traditional institutions, dwarfed these newborn modern and civic associations. Since there were no non-Arab candidates in these cities, the competitive element in theses cities was mainly tribal. Despite the recent rise in criticism of tribal foundations and growth of anti-tribalism in favor of ethnic ideals, tribalism is still the stronger force.
Despite the fact that 70% of the inhabitants of Susa (Shoosh Daniel) are Arabs, both in the previous and present election cycles, the Arabs were a minority among the chosen candidates. Basically, the city’s governmental offices are staffed mainly by non-Arabs, and the Arab majority has no voice in city matters. In addition, , the level of participation among Arabs in the city council election is lower than in Khuzestan’s other Arab cities. Of the seven elected for Shoosh city council, only two are Arabs. In the Alwan (Abdulkhan) section of Shoosh township, all the elected council members are Arabs and members of the Abdulkhan tribe.
Astonishingly, Arab ethnicity issues were of less importance in Khuzestan’s Eastern cities. For example, in both Arab majority cities of Omeedieh and Ramshir (Khalaf Abad), all five elected members of the councils are Arabs; whereas, in the first round, the Arabs were a minority.
In the port city of Mahshahr (Ma’shoor), a 60% Arab city, all five elected city council members are Arabs. In the cities of Hendijan and Port of Imam Khomeini, of the seven elected city council members, one and three are Arabs, respectively. The elections of Sarbandar, in which five Arabs were elected, were voided for alleged election fraud, according to the committee overseeing the results. However, the Arabs have denied these charges.
Finally, it must be said that various elections have an important role in both politicizing the Arabs of Khuzestan, and also increasing their civil and political awareness. The presence of democratic ethnic politics will eventually weaken the independence-seeking tendencies, since people will see that their children have the chance to enter parts of the establishment body, an opportunity that rarely arose in the past 80 years.
Although the city councils have no role or power to restore to the Arabs their ethnic rights, and only operate in the citizenry fields, political participation and tribal rivalries and motives have played a role in bringing people to the polling stations, as I mentioned earlier.
It must be said that most of those who were elected are the children of this Revolution, former members of revolutionary and security foundations, and veterans of the Iran-Iraq war.
The experiences of the past 50-60 years have proven that only Arab civic foundations, whether political or cultural, are essential to cultural enrichment, democratic growth, and political development among the Arabs of Khuzestan.
In dealing with ethnic issues, the application of violence and suppression will result in hate and distrust. We have witnessed this in Khuzestan’s contemporary history. Violent confrontations with ethnic personalities, such as the one with Mahmood Chehregani in the fifth cycle of the Tabriz election, which eventually led to his emigration overseas, have only bore negative consequences..
The law should protect all of Iran’s children with disregard to ethnicity, language and religion. Thus granting freedom to ethnic parties and organizations was a correct and wise decision by Mr. Khatami’s government. This was a point that I emphasized during my speech in the month of Mehr of this year, before the Ministry of Interior (vizarat-e- keshvar). But this policy must be expanded, consolidated, and supplemented by enforcing the two neglected articles of the constitution, articles 15 and 19.
The momentous historical and absolute victory of the Arab personalities and parties in the city council elections in Ahwaz and other major cities of Khuzestan, demonstrate the weight and importance of the Arabs in the Khuzestan province. Therefore, their votes and political and cultural potency cannot be ignored. The End.
Written by Youssef Azizi
Translated by Abdul Reza Ameri