After the conservatives coast to a sweeping electoral victory in Iran, the public is mostly disenchanted and some reformers look simply inept, reports Mustafa El-Labbad
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Conservative lawmakers Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel (L) and Musa Gurbani talk under a photo of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Khomeini at the parliament in Tehran on Monday|
Iran's recent parliamentary elections have radically transformed the political scene. Parliamentary elections usually either emphasise continuity or introduce an element change. In Iran's case, they definitely offer a clue as to where the country is heading. However, the impact of the Iranian elections cannot be analysed on the basis of figures alone, but one first has to attempt to fathom the country's intricate realities and complex political fabric.
AHEAD OF THE ELECTIONS: BLEAK PROSPECTS
The political atmosphere in Iran before the elections was one in which the conservatives seemed determined to remove the reformers from the parliament, indeed from the entire government apparatus. Political power in Iran has been unevenly divided between the conservative and reformist currents, with the conservatives controlling the supreme leader's post, the judiciary, the Expediency Discernment Council , and the Council of Guardians -- the latter wielding greater power than the parliament. In return, the reformers had a minority status, controlling the office of the president, which is subordinate to the supreme leader, and also held a parliamentary majority.
Although the balance of power was already tilted in favour of the conservatives, the partially democratic Iran presented the world with a more acceptable image, one of a country that had left behind the legacy of "exporting the revolution", which in the 1980s had diplomatically isolated Tehran.
The parliamentary elections provided the conservatives with a chance to paralyse the reformers. From the conservatives' point of view, the popular reformers had outgrown their usefulness and become a political liability. If left unchecked, the reformers might have more openly questioned the basis of the Iranian system, the Velayat-e Faqih (government by the clergy).
The task of banishing the reformers from the state apparatus and casting Iranian politics in a more conservative mould was given to the Council of Guardians. The Council has the right to disqualify parliamentary candidates who are deemed disloyal to the Velayat-e Faqih and other principles of the Islamic Republic. On this basis, the Council, controlled by the conservatives, excluded 2,500 reformist candidates from the elections. The move, although constitutional, was legally questionable, for the individuals affected by the measure were not given the chance to appeal their case.
THE ELECTORAL CLIMATE: "PRETTY AND INDEPENDENT"
There are 46 million voters in Iran, with suffrage for all citizens over the age of 15, and 40,000 polling stations. Just under 4,500 candidates, including about 200 women, ran for the parliament's 289 seats. Normally, there are 290 seats to be contested, but this year the seat of Bam -- the city ravaged by an earthquake two months ago -- was left vacant. Turnout was 51 per cent, the lowest ever in the history of the Islamic Republic. In Tehran, only 22 per cent of eligible voters showed up at the polling stations. Turnout was particularly low in pro- reform, affluent and middle-class urban areas, and higher in the countryside and in poor, conservative urban neighbourhoods. As the elections approached, Iranian state-run media kept relaying a fatwa by Ayatollah Fazel Lankrani urging the voters to go in the polls. The reformers complained that the state media was being used to air pro- conservative propaganda.
Over the previous six elections in the history of the Islamic Republic, turnout had averaged 61.5 per cent, and 69 per cent in the last two elections where reformers gained ground. The number of eligible voters in these elections has risen over the years from 20 million in the early 1980s to 46 million at present. This was due to the demographic change that brought in new voters into over-15 eligibility. While the base of the electoral pyramid was growing, no change happened in the age of Iran's political elite, except on the reformers' side. The average age among reformist politicians is a youthful 40. In one of Tehran's polling stations, two 15-year-old boys voted, for their first time ever, for one particular female candidate. Quizzed about their choice, they said she was pretty and independent.
ELECTION RESULTS: CHECKMATE
According to preliminary results, the conservatives are set for a landslide victory. The final count is expected next week, but in Tehran alone, the conservatives are likely to control 90 per cent of the seats. The man who leads the conservative list in Tehran, Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, has solid credentials: he is the son-in-law of Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, and a strong contender for the post of parliament speaker. In Qom, the seat of Iran's ruling clerical establishment, the conservatives have secured all four of the city's seats.
Due to the ban on hundreds of reformists, the conservatives were guaranteed sure victory in 72 constituencies and running against reformists with mediocre credentials in 80 more constituencies. This brings to 40 per cent the number of parliamentary seats where the conservative were already sure or very likely to win. In fact, only 60 per cent of the parliamentary seats were open to credible competition. Moreover, the conservatives have the solid support of the Army, the Revolutionary Guard, and volunteer service personnel. These total almost 25 per cent of the voters.
The conservatives and reformists do not differ only in approach, but in the social background of their supporters. Those who support the reformers are mostly urban middle class, women, and young. Those who support the conservatives are rural, urban poor, or elderly. While the conservatives played rough and promised their supporters tangible gains, the reformists had only words to offer. Reformist ideas in Iran, however sensible, are backed by people who lack social cohesion. The latter have, so far, failed to put up a solid front for action.
The reformers were divided over the question of boycotting the elections. The moderates, such as Khatami and Karrubi, wanted to contest the elections. The radicals, led by the Islamic Participation Front, opted for a boycott. In the end, what the moderate reformers lost was more than the elections. They lost the Iranian street, the support of those sympathisers who are now disillusioned with the inability of the moderate reformers to implement the promises made in previous elections and stand up to the conservatives. The radical reformers still command some respect in the Iranian street, where the conservatives are far from popular.
President Khatami and Parliament Speaker Mahdi Karrubi, by failing to resign, have shown a lack of resolve and thereby weakened the credibility of the entire reformist current among the public. Iranian television made a point of emphasising remarks in which Khatami described the elections as proof of the legitimacy of the Iranian regime and advised the public to accept their outcome. There remarks were interpreted as indicating Khatami's personal acceptance of the victory of the conservatives, the same people who have been opposing his policies for years. The conservatives did not win the elections. The reformers lost it, because of a combination of factors that were in play even before the elections started.
The division between the reformers is not the only division in the country. Even within the ruling religious elite the issue has precipitated a noticeable rift, as evidenced by the boycott in the recent elections by such figures as the Ayatollahs Wahid, Sanie, Zinjani, Safi and Jawad Tabrizi.
The primary weakness of the reform movement, in which moderates outnumber radicals, has been its inability to pose a strong and united front against conservative pressure. A recent headline in Kihan, one of the most broadly circulating newspapers in Iran, issued what is perhaps the most commonly felt verdict on the performance of reformists in recent elections: "Checkmate".
Indeed, if the election results tell us anything it is that the Khatami government will be forced to jettison at least some of those ministers known for their reformist attitude. Current Minister of Interior Abdel-Wahid Mousawi Lari will probably head the list of candidates for dismissal in the drive to bring the Khatami government to heel by 2005, the year in which Khatami's second and final term ends and presidential elections are held. If, as is anticipated, conservatives win those elections, representatives of the reform trend will lose the remainder of their footing in government. The consequences of this will raise a huge question mark over the popular legitimacy of the Iranian parliament in coming years, as well as over the prospects of Iran's acceptance into the international community in the event that Tehran, under conservative rule, reverts to hard-line foreign policies.
Following the elections, I had an appointment with several deputies in the outgoing parliament. At the parliament building in southern Tehran, radical reformists are preparing to tender their resignations from parliament. These reformists are under no illusion that their resignations will generate a "constitution vacuum" in an institution in which conservatives are poised to fill the gap. However, they do believe that their withdrawal from officialdom will free their hands in the drive to mobilise the public. Foremost among these deputies are Rajab Ali Mazroui, representative from Isfahan, and Mohamed Reda Khatami, Reda Yusefian and Muhsin Mir Damadi, all of whom are very popular leading figures in the Participation Front Party, which boycotted the elections.
After two hours of security procedures, I was able to enter the venerable parliamentary assembly hall with its banks of red felt- covered seats and walls decorated with the sayings of Ayotallah Khomeini. Although that day's session had convened to discuss the budget, it was opened by reformists who presented the collective resignation of 130 of their members to Speaker Mahdi Krubi at protest against what they claim was the illegitimate intervention in the polls by the Council for the Protection of the Constitution. The Iranian constitution places stringent conditions on parliamentary resignations. Therefore, only a single resignation was approved -- that of Fatima Haqiqat Jue, representative of Tehran -- while the rest were kept pending until completion of deliberations over the national budget, which could take at least a week.
From then on, the session grew stormier, with reformists accusing conservatives of trying to impose an interpretation of Islam akin to that the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Suddenly the chamber erupted into an angry crossfire of mutual recriminations and name-calling, the din of which reached the upper balcony reserved for journalists.
In the first interval that day, Reda Yusefian confided in me that the attitudes of some of the top figures in the reform movement towards advocates of opposing opinions could jeopardise the future of the political process in Iran. The 36-year-old radical reformist representative from Shiraz added, "The recent elections are not the end of the road. The Iranian street which boycotted these elections is fully aware of the tyranny it faces." When I asked him whether he intended to remain in the country, he said, "We'll wait and see."
In conclusion, the political mosaic in Iran has entered a new phase in which the balance of power is tipping more and more in the favour of conservatives. This phase may well usher in the decline of that vibrancy that had characterised politics in the country over the past seven years during which the rising tide of reform clashing with conservatives inside the institutions of government. Now that the reformists have lost parliament, their sole remaining hold in government resides in the person of the president of the republic, and given all current indicators, this too, is likely to end with the forthcoming presidential elections. With it, the era of power sharing between the reformist and conservative trends is coming to a close.
The current picture in Iran is as follows: Conservatives are moving from victory to victory, from the municipal elections in Tehran last year, to the parliamentary elections today and most probably the presidential elections next year. The reformists are defeated and divided, while the Iranian reform- minded members of the public either boycott elections or are losing interest in the political process, which suggests that the sweeping conservative victory in the recent elections is not so much indicative of their popularity as it is of the hold they have on the nation's decision-making centres.
Nevertheless, if the parliamentary elections seem to have confirmed the inverse trajectories of the conformist and reformist trends, the nearly 100-year-old history of the Iranian parliament may offer some solace. This history tells us that Iranian elections have always tended to reflect only ephemeral balances of power, while the process of transformation and change in parliamentary life remains the predominant constant.