Nationwide survey illuminates forces at play in recent Iranian demonstrations

Nationwide survey illuminates forces at play in recent Iranian demonstrations Cover of European Iran Research Group report (left) and UCLA sociologist Kevan Harris (photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA).

A recent telephone survey reveals much new information about Iranian voters' political behavior and renders inadequate the categories currently used to describe Iranian politics, says UCLA sociologist Kevan Harris.

“People in Iran are not disconnected from politics because they are voting. Yet national-level elite factions aren't reflected in how most people report how they voted.”

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, January 29, 2018 — Kevan Harris, a UCLA professor who has a joint appointment to the sociology department and the UCLA International Institute (International Development Studies Program), is the co-author of a new report published by the European Iran Research Group based in Lund, Sweden.

Voter Behavior and Political Mobilization in Iran: Findings from the Iran Social Survey,” distills the most time-relevant findings of the Iran Social Survey, a 2016 nationwide poll conducted in Iran. The report provides a valuable complement to reporting on the public demonstrations that broke out in provincial cities throughout Iran on December 28, 2017.

Iranian citizens assembled across the country, expressing long-simmering demands for political, social and economic change. Many of these grievances, notes Harris, are rooted not just in economic inequality and unmet social promises, but a more general frustration with political stagnation in the Islamic Republic.

Circulated videos of rallies, online media sources and domestic Iranian reports have proven useful for understanding these historic events. The limitations of these sources can be rounded out by the “Voter Behavior” report, which assesses how Iranians respond from below at key moments of electoral mobilization.

Significantly, it shows that political participation in Iran is far more heterogeneous than expected: Iranians switch their votes, making voter blocs far more fluid and conflicted within themselves than was previously understood.


Survey in brief

In an effort to capture citizen behavior and attitudes towards presidential and parliamentary elections, political mobilization by candidate campaigns and access to various news media, the Iran Social Survey (ISS) surveyed a nationally representative sample of 5,000 Iranian residents after the 2016 Majles (parliamentary) and Assembly of Experts elections.

The landline survey sample included individuals from all provinces — rural and urban — in the country. Questions addressed political participation and mobilization, ethnicity, language, occupation, education and social mobility.

In addition to EIRG, the Iran Social Survey was made possible with the help of the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond) and the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Princeton University.

Pending future funding, the co-principal investigators (PIs) of the Iran Social Survey — Professor Harris and Daniel Tavana (Ph.D. candidate, department of politics, Princeton University) — intend to conduct the survey every four years following parliamentary elections in the country.

Reports about the 2016 survey findings are geared toward a broad audience. They seek to provide information about Iran that does not currently exist in the public sphere to the general public, journalists, policy makers and scholars. Future reports are expected to cover changes in Iran with respect to ethnicity and language, education and work, and gender and civil society, respectively.


The survey and recent demonstrations in Iran

Harris, author of the new and well-reviewed book, “A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran” (UC Press, 2017), notes that during the recent protests, chants were heard against the government's “principalist” (conservative) predecessors, the current administration associated with President Hassan Rouhani and even the “reformist” opposition. As various factions in Iran’s political establishment jockeyed to respond to the country-wide protest wave, a palpable sense emerged that the existing bargain driven by elite mobilization of citizen participation in electoral politics is no longer credible.

February 26, 2016. People in line to vote during the parliamentary election in Iran.
Photo: Mohammad Ali Marizad/ Tasnim News Agency via Wikimedia Commons, 2016. CC BY 4.0.

“The idea of Iranian politics has been that voter blocs are homogeneous, distinct and basically continuous over time,” comments Harris. “The story in the past was that there’s a group who always vote for the ‘liberals’ or the ‘reformists’ — or whatever category is currently being used — and a group of voters who always vote for ‘conservatives.’” (The categories used in the survey are “reformist,” “principalist” and “moderate,” reflecting the current terms used by the Iranian political elite.)

“The picture,” he continues, “was that society was cleft in twain, with Iranian politics divided along the lines of young versus old, educated versus uneducated, rural versus urban, Tehran versus the provinces.”

One discovery from the survey data is that vote switching occurs among voters. That is, people switch their votes among loose political associations of candidates often created specifically for national elections in Iran (the country does not have political parties). Not only does the composition of these groups change from one election to another, explains Harris, but people change the groups of candidates for whom they vote.

“Political competition in Iran is not pitting generations against each other or tradition versus modernity,” observes Harris. “In fact, the survey shows that each of these groups that we often use to tell the story of change in Iran are actually in and of themselves divided along those very same political orientations.”


Survey observations cannot all be interpreted — yet

As Harris explains, the other major findings about political participation in Iran include:

  1. Competition among politicians matters. Even voters who are “smart partisans” in Iran change their votes over time. At the same time, candidates in national elections compete to get votes and sway people from one side to another.
  2. Iranians turn out in high numbers to vote — the survey confirms the government’s claims on voter turnout rates (roughly 60 percent for national parliamentary elections and roughly 70 percent for presidential elections). However, the reasons why they vote are quite varied.
  3. Iranians who vote are interested in politics and get their information primarily from television and traditional media. However, voters may not think about candidates in the same way that national political elites do.
  4. Voters are mobilized differently by candidates, with younger, more educated and urban voters more likely to be contacted through social as well as traditional media, and older, less educated and rural voters more likely to participate in barnstorming political rallies during the short (one-month) electoral period in Iran. 
  5. The participation of certain voter groups, such as youth and women, vary by election, which may reflect the choices available to them.

Most of these findings, explains Harris, “we have never seen before because no one has ever been able to break up voter turnout in Iran by demographic factors. This is essentially the first-ever exit poll in Iran, albeit with some delay,” he adds. (The survey was conducted six months after parliamentary elections were completed and included queries about the presidential election held three years prior.)

June 5, 2013, headquarters of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Second of three
public debates among the candidates in Iran’s 2013 presidential election. Photo: Mahdi Dehghan/
Tasnim News Agency
via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0.

Iranian politics a work in progress

The survey findings give us a bottom-up view of politics in Iran, says Harris. “In many ways,” he explains, “the political system in Iran is still a work in progress, an improvisation. When they have an election, they don't know how it is going to turn out, which goes against the idea that many people have — that elections are all rigged.

“Obviously, elections are limited at the beginning by the approval of potential candidates, so the set-up is skewed,” he says. “But once that happens, then the unpredictability is real and you know it’s unpredictable because the candidates on top fight hard to mobilize voters and people on the bottom think during a very rapid time period [four weeks] about who to vote for.”

Iranian politics are unusual in specific ways. First, unlike modern Egypt, for example, Iran is not a one-party state, explains Harris. Ayatollah Khomeini, in fact, shut down a short-lived effort to create such a party during the 1980s. Second, the country lacks broad membership-based political parties altogether, a reality that Harris traces both to Middle Eastern political thought during the 20th century and intense competition between groups of politicians after the 1979 revolution.

“The elite associations that are formed during elections in Iran,” he notes, “are looser than a party structure. It's very hard to discipline someone from simply running as an independent. Independents did win in the recent parliamentary elections,” he adds, “especially in cities outside Tehran.”

Given high levels of election turnout, he observes, “People in Iran are not disconnected from politics... Yet national-level elite factions aren’t reflected in how most people report how they voted.” Findings from the Iran Social Survey, he concludes, “open up the question about how things work outside of the capital.”

February 26, 2016. Woman showing that she has voted in the 2016 parliamentary election in Iran.
Photo: Hamed Malekpour/ Tasnim News Agency via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0.

Not only do voter blocs vary within themselves, but the means of political mobilization in national elections also vary. “In a relative sense, none of the stories that we have been telling about mobilization in Iran are wrong: there is top-down media control, bottom-up use of alternative means, there are campaign rallies, there is a personalistic side of politics.”

What the survey reveals, he stresses, is that all these factors are present at the same time. “Iran has always been sold as a story of either/or, but actually, all these factors are there,” he concludes.

As Harris recently pointed out in The Washington Post, the December 2017–January 2018 protests challenged the assumption that Iranians living outside of the capital Tehran are a devoted base of the political establishment. Instead, the attention of the capital is now focused on the demands of the provinces.

As with previous protest waves in the country since the 1979 revolution, popular protests tend to widen and intensify the competition between political factions. “As these political factions jockey against each other, draw new lines of competition and attempt to mobilize popular support in upcoming political contests,” Harris writes, “popular disruption from below may create spaces where Iran’s political establishment will be forced to react in surprising ways.”

Harris will be discussing additional findings from the Iran Social Survey, the most recent protests and his new book on February 12, 2–5 pm, in room 6275 of Bunche Hall. The event, “Roots of Iranian Rage: Protest and Power in the Islamic Republic,” is cosponsored by the UCLA Department of Sociology, the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History, and the Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Read a recent Washington Post article on the relationship between labor and the recent protests in Iran co-authored by Harris here. Listen to a podcast of the sociologist speaking about his recent book here.

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Published: Monday, January 29, 2018