Al-Ahram Weekly
1 - 7 June 2000
Issue No. 484
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Reformists ready for gradual revolution

By Azadeh Moaveni

If political change in the Middle East has historically been heralded by changes in head-covering styles, then Iran's new parliament promises to be a departure. When the new representatives filled the halls of the parliament on 27 May, for the first time there was not a clerical turban in every row. Also new were the head scarves sported by female MPs which replaced the insistently pious full-body black covering called the chador. With a three-quarter reformist majority, the possibility of a modern, younger speaker, and the will to try to address unmet popular expectations, since President Mohamed Khatami took office, the sixth parliament is a significant gain in the reformist movement to democratise Iran.

Reformists intend to use their newly-found legislative muscle to change how government works. Their ultimate goal, which they try not to mention lest terrified hard-liners lash out, is to revise the Constitution. They plan to give a comprehensive overhaul to both the institutional arrangements and imprecise legal codes that currently enable conservatives to behave as legal authoritarians. By updating the electoral law, for example, reformists can check the Guardian Council's virtually unilateral screening powers, which they believe have turned the last five parliaments into a quasi-populist rubber stamp. The council, dominated by hard-liners, is required to approve candidates for any election. It has frequently used this power to prevent reformists from running.

But these sensitive reforms, which strike at the heart of conservative power, cannot come first, according to one reformist MP. "The controversial parts have to be tackled later," he says, "but we can start with economic reform and the press law."

President Khatami at the opening of the new reformist-dominated parliament on Saturday, surrounded by MP Mohammadi-Golpaigani, to his right, and former Iranian President Rafsanjani and the head of the Judiciary Hashemi-Shahroudi, to his left
(photo: AP)
The existing press law holds journalists rather than publishers responsible for contentious copy, and with the hard-liners in control of the judiciary, reformers are expending considerable time and effort in trying to get reporters out of prison. "If the sixth parliament opens, the shelf-life of the current press law is one month," Reza Khatami, brother of the Iranian president and a newspaper publisher, said earlier this month. But besides the press law, reformists say social conditions will be the main determinant for their priorities.

Reformists plan to push legislation that rehabilitates the legal status of civil institutions -- laws that determine the nature of political crimes, or govern the creation and activities of political parties. By securing more social and political freedoms through legal channels, reformists hope to circumvent the hard-line-dominated judiciary's often legalised attack on reforms.

The Guardian Council is still expected to stand in the way of legislation reformists propose, but even if continually obstructed, reformists still have means to work with. For example, they can try to appoint new jurists to the 12-member council. According to a key reformist strategist in the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF) -- the faction closest to President Khatami -- parliament's control over taxes, for example, could leave a political tool of the hard-liners, such as state television, without a budget.

But before they can get to work, reformist MPs must spend a month putting their house in order. Reformists plan to challenge the conservative MP from Khalkhal, who only gained his seat after the Guardian Council annulled the win of the local reformist candidate. The IIPF threatened to do the same to former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani before he resigned his seat last week.

Rafsanjani's surprising resignation came one day before the opening of parliament. He said he was resigning following a campaign by reformists which claimed that he did not deserve the seat he won in the latest elections, and that the election was rigged to assure him a seat.

In a reformist-dominated parliament, Rafsanjani probably reached the conclusion that he would not enjoy the same influence he had when hard-liners were a majority. Rafsanjani was usually portrayed as a moderate, but in times of crisis he often sided with hard-liners, angering Khatami's camp.

An early test of the parliament's forward momentum was the battle over the selection of the speaker. On Tuesday, the reformists succeeded in mobilising a majority of votes in parliament for Mehdi Karoubi, a clerical politician who is expected to be able to coordinate comfortably with the president. Karoubi is a cautious and unimaginative choice -- one which the younger generation of the IIPF decried. They said such a choice would doom a parliament facing both stratospheric popular expectations and an uphill political struggle.

A liberal parliament is a huge and unprecedented gain for reformists, but from a broader view it is still a small step within a much larger political project. "The outcome of the reform movement's victory in the sixth parliament will really be seen in the seventh parliament," an IIPF parliamentarian said.

While the sixth parliament may not radically alter the lives of most Iranians, they may, for once, be able to observe their elected politicians working actively to represent their interests. Solutions may not sail forth, but a depressed and despairing population may find new reason not to lose hope in its democratic institutions.

"Democracy, yes! theocracy, no!" read a student banner at a Tehran University demonstration last week. Whether the parliament can meet young people's expectations remains to be seen. But the real question may be whether reformists can make parliament seem as though it's trying to do so.

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