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Iran holds its parliamentary elections today, March 14th, to fill the 290 seats of the Islamic Consultative Council. It is also expected to be a referendum on Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is in the third year of a four-year term. Currently the Iranian Parliament seats consist of 190 conservatives, 50 reformists, 43 independents (or centrists), 5 seats reserved for religous minorities, and 2 other seats. Voting will conclude at 2:30 PM EDT today, and preliminary results can be expected Saturday and Sunday. Official results will probably not be announced for a few days after that.
The once-promising reform movement that seemed more open to the West is expected to lose ground in today’s election. One reason is that the government’s vetting process for candidates has already limited the reformists’ participation. According to The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about 2000 potential reformist candidates were disqualified from running, and the reformist candidates that were approved to run initially could only compete for about 30 of the 290 available seats. The vetting process is designed to ensure the candidate meets some basic requirements and they are committed to the constitution and the Islamic republic.
Two of the reformist leaders, former Iranian presidents Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, met with Khamenei on January 27 to discuss the exclusion of candidates by the Guardian Council of Iran. Khamenei eventually relented and allowed the reformists to compete for about 120 seats.
But the reform movement has other problems too, as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy went on to say:
“…the reformists lack the social power base required to take advantage of electoral opportunities in the first place. Political ambivalence and voter apathy led to the failure of reformist candidates in the most recent presidential and municipal elections because the Iranian people have lost faith in their ability to change the system and make real reforms. Indeed, the current disqualifications have provoked little popular reaction, even among the traditional student constituency. Similarly, the lack of middle-class support has led many political analysts to conclude that even without the Guardian Council decision, the reformists would not have done well in the elections.”
The campaign and election process in Iran is strictly controlled by the ruling clerics and has inherent disadvantages for reform-minded candidates. The exclusion of reformist candidates by the Guardian Council blocked many well-known politicians from running at all, leaving relatively unknown reformers to contest the limited seats. A candidate faces huge hurdles without widespread name recognition. Official campaigning is only allowed for one week prior to the election. A March 10th article in the Washington Post detailed some of the other difficulties facing Iranian candidates for Parliament:
“Campaigning has been muted. Parliament banned any poster larger than a playing card bearing a candidate’s photo, a move it said aimed to cut down on wasting paper.
But the effect for Iranians has been to make the overwhelming number of candidates – some 4,500 nationwide – even more anonymous.
The slates provide some clue as to candidates’ stances – but not a sure one since the lists are as much a product of political dealmaking as ideology.
In Tehran, each voter will choose 30 names to fill the capital’s 30 seats from among 800 candidates. They can check all the names on a single list but many voters pick and choose from several lists, or go with independents, often based on name recognition.
Voters appear to be paying little attention, focused instead on shopping for the March 20 holiday of Nowruz, the Iranian calendar’s New Year’s Day.”
Voter turnout is critical to the reformists’ efforts if they are to regain the majority in Parliament that they last held in 2004:
Turnout among the estimated 44 million eligible voters is a key issue. In 2004 elections, which were swept by hard-liners after most reform candidates were barred from the race, turnout was around 51 percent. In previous votes won by reformists, it was closer to 80 percent. Reformists say they have the support of a silent majority that, if it votes, swings elections to them.
Reformists held parliament from 2000 to 2004. During that time, they loosened Islamic social restrictions. But hard-liners, who control the unelected clerical bodies whose powers trump the parliament and president, prevented deep political change.
If the hardline Islamic fundamentalists gain more power with additional seats in Parliament, it is doubtful that Iran will improve its human rights record any time soon. For example, the recent story of Mehdi Kazemi’s request for asylum illusrates how homosexuals in Iran live in fear. Homosexuality is illegal in Iran, and Kazemi stated in his request for asylum that his boyfriend had been executed in Iran for admitting a relationship with Kazemi. England and the Netherlands have both turned down Kazemi’s asylum request. His uncle said “If anybody signs his deportation papers and says, look, he’s got to be deported to Iran, that means they have signed his death sentence.”
Iran’s conservative fundamentalists do not always march in lockstep. Ahmadinejad does not appear to have the unquestioned support of the clerics he once enjoyed. Even the Supreme Leader of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, publicly sided against Ahmadinejad recently over a dispute between Ahmadinejad and Parliament over deliveries of natural gas to remote villages. Ahmadinejad did not deliver the natural gas, claiming Parliament’s legislation requiring him to do so was unconstitutional. But Khamenei rebuked Ahmadinejad’s claim, saying “All legal legislation that has gone through procedures stipulated in the Constitution is binding for all branches of power” in a letter to Parliament settling the dispute. This was the first time Khamenei had publicly refused to back Ahmadinejad.
The measure of Ahmadinejad’s support will be reflected in the election performance of two conservative factions. The United Front of Principlists is a pro-Ahmadinejad faction, while the Inclusive Coalition of Principlists is largely critical of Ahmadinejad. A strong showing by Ahmadinejad’s critics could weaken him for the Iranian presidential election in 2009. Most complaints about Ahmadinejad center around his economic policies, but complaints about his foreign policy are becoming more common too, including his handling of Iran’s nuclear program and the resulting U.N. sanctions.
The resignation of Admiral William Fallon as CENTCOM chief on March 12th renews speculation that the Bush administration could proceed with military action against Iran. Fallon had made statements in the past advocating diplomacy with Iran, such as:
“We’re trying to encourage dialogue and find resolution. In fact, that’s our message to the Iranians out here, given that everybody is nervous and anxious about their activities, is to come forth and explain what they are doing with all the people in the region.”
If the Bush administration found it necessary to push Fallon aside, and the Iranian elections result in stronger control by Islamic fundamentalists, an already bad relationship between the U.S. and Iran could grow much worse. The announcement in December that Iran had halted its nuclear program in 2003 eased tensions somewhat, but the Bush administration seems intent on keeping the pressure on Iran, and Ahmadinejad continues his harsh rhetoric towards the U.S. The two countries remain on a collision course.