Last week - a week that saw the arrest of several student activists peacefully commemorating the anniversary of 1999 student protests, abduction of labor leader Massour Osanlou by plainclothes men in broad daylight (after a few days he was reported to have appeared in Evin prison’s Ward 209 which is run by the Intelligence Ministry), and the stoning of a man to death for adultery in the Qazvin province despite the attempt by other judicial authorities to stop it (the judge who ordered the stoning is now under investigation) - Iran for all practical purposes also kick started its elections for the Eight Parliament (Majles) to be held on March 15.
The occasion for what I consider a kickoff was the deadline set by new election regulations that came to pass last week for high ranking government employees to resign their posts six months before the election if they wished to run. The deputy interior minister for parliamentary affairs reported that approximately 150 high ranking officials resigned for an election that among Iran's political classes is considered both important and contested. The actual registration and the subsequent Guardian Council vetting process will not begin until late December but election talk and maneuvering for the creation of slates of candidates have already begun.
The legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, for variety of reasons, is intimately tied to the exercise of elections and this will be the Islamic Republic’s 25th elections for various offices (added to the 3 elections held in the immediate post-revolution year regarding the change of regime, election for the Constitutional Assembly and the approval of the Islamic constitution) in its 28-year history. Since until last year these elections were never held jointly, there have been elections in Iran almost annually. It was the extensiveness of resources required to mobilize for nationwide elections that led to the decision to hold the December 2006 elections for the Assembly of Experts (every eight years) and municipal councils (every four years) together. Similar attempts were made throughout last year to synchronize presidential and parliamentary elections, both held every four years, but the Guardian Council declared unconstitutional every legislative attempt to either shorten the president’s term or lengthen that of the Majles. Unlike the terms for the Assembly of Experts and municipal councils, the Iranian Constitution is explicit about the four -year duration of the presidential and parliamentary terms, and on this particular technicality the Guardian Council has proven uncharacteristically a stickler to the letter of the law at least so far.
Given the power of non-elective institutions – office of the leader, the Guardian Council, and the Expediency Council – one can and should question the significance of elections in Iran in heralding any measurable change in the political system as a whole. But notwithstanding this fundamental issue, elections in Iran do involve a competition in which the outcome is not pre-determined and as such they are significant political games, involving all the machinations, organizational maneuvering, attempts at coalition building, and voter and vote manipulations that are prevalent in many countries that have competitive political systems. Like elsewhere, they may also entail shifts in policy direction (as it has happened in the shift from Khatami to Ahmadinejad), particularly in the economic and cultural arenas. Moreover, there is the added element of constant attempt to manipulate election rules in order to handicap opponents or those candidates which may challenge the system (this is again not unique to Iran but is currently practiced much more extensively than elsewhere). As such elections also provide an important space for conversation about the rules of the game, and criticism of how elections are conducted and ultimately how the Islamic Republic is run. These criticisms rarely get anywhere but elections are important vehicles for their airing. Whether the recent security-oriented created to confront U.S. pressures and UN Security Council sanctions will prevent the usual opening of the public space during elections times is yet to be seen
As to the manipulation of the rules, the world mostly knows about the vetting of the candidates by the Guardian Council - a body consisting of 6 clerics appointed by the supreme leader and 6 non-clerics nominated by the head of the judiciary and approved by the Majles - and how this very effective mechanism has been used since the early 1990s by the conservatives who control the Guardian Council to handicap their opponents. But this process has also received quite a bit of domestic and international criticism and for the upcoming elections new tactics are being tried by the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of conducting elections and since Ahmadinejad’s election has also been controlled by hard-line conservatives.
For instance, the new election regulations require those who occupy a significant number of government positions to resign from their positions six months before elections (hence the last weeks deadline). This rule is a clear disadvantage to those with higher chances of being vetted by the Guardian Council, i.e., the reformists/centrists. Since election registration and vetting do not begin until two months prior to the election, the very real possibility that a person may be disqualified and be out of a lucrative government job is likely to act as a significant barrier to candidacy. In recent years, the way to get around the vetting process, at least partially, has been by flooding the election market with candidates. This particular rule is intended to counteract that tactic. But ironically, given the fact that the conservatives now also control the executive branch, this may hurt them more by the mere fact that they now have more people in positions of power who are by law forbidden to run for the parliament unless they resign their positions. This is why the reformist and centrist political parties are claiming that they will have less difficulty in fielding sufficient number of candidates.
The second changed rule, an increase in the education requirement of candidates to a Masters degree (or a Bachelors degree and five years of managerial experience in the private or private sector) is likely to reduce the traditionally unwieldy number of candidates without little partisan impact over the long run. But in the short run the mere fact of the conservative controlled Interior Ministry becoming an arbiter of whether a candidate has enough combined education and experience adds another layer of vetting, hidden by the veneer of educational requirements. As such, it politicizes an already highly politicized electoral process even further. Finally, the decision to count each four-year stint as a member of the parliament as equivalent to one educational degree is undoubtedly intended to help the incumbent (mostly conservative) deputies retain their seats.
Despite all the rule manipulations, the process of forming slates of candidates for large cities is already in full gear. The past few elections have revealed a “hyper-fractionalization” of the political forces to the point that without some sort of concerted effort to form pre-election coalitions, organizations or political parties identified as either conservative or reformist will not have be able to declare any kind of victory in the upcoming Majles election. But in forming coalitions, the reformist/centrist and conservatives forces face different problems.
For the reformists/centrists the issue is registering enough candidates, particularly for the 30 seats of the city of Tehran, so that after disqualifications they would still have appealing slates in large cities (by appealing I mean that the top tiers of the slates are sufficiently well-known to attract the voters to come and vote and, when they do, vote for the whole slate). They also need to struggle against the urge among some reformists to boycott the elections if the vetting process becomes too extensive. Vetting clearly disadvantages the reformists/centrists but low voter turnout, likely in case of boycott by some reformists, assures a victory for conservatives (as it did in the 2003 municipal and 2004 Majles election) who can always rely on a solid base of supporters to show up on Election Day.
Even more important for the reformists/centrists is the need to overcome political divisions that have cost them several elections by offering slates that despite some variations essentially share a core of candidates that are acceptable to all the reformist and centrist forces. This strategy was tried during the 2006 municipal elections and led to significant gains in large cities. In the city of Tehran, for instance, the reformist/centrist council members now constitute a significant minority and because of this they were able to prevent the attempt on the part of hard-line conservative to dislodge the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who today is considered more moderate (and a more capable executive) than Ahmadinejad and the most likely person to successfully challenge him in the next presidential election of 2009.
The conservatives’ problem with political divisions is probably worse. Being in power and not facing the kinds of adverse moves that the reformists/centrists have faced in the past few years against their political survival, they will have a more difficult time overcoming their ideological and political differences, particularly over the running of the economy. They could of course make a marriage of convenience for the sake of maintaining power (something they were unable to do during the 2006 municipal elections). But given past experience, they know that this marriage will fall apart immediately after the election as it has during the current conservative Majles. In fact, several prominent deputies have already announced the formation of a group of independent conservatives, with the intent of offering its own separate slate for the city of Tehran.
The conservative inability to reach a compromise in order to maintain their solid control of all elective and non-elective institutions makes the urge to manipulate the electoral process stronger and the pre-election situation very fluid and unpredictable. But such fluidity and unpredictability (and wild electoral swings) have become almost the norm in Iranian politics and in all likelihood a function of a political system that, while endowed with bickering political elite, is lacking in a fully-formed party system based on competing platforms. As such, the next few months in Iran will again be literally consumed with intrigues and maneuvering about who should be on which list, along with accusations and counter-accusations, without much reference to what elections results will mean in terms of the country’s well being. What will matter is first how many people will show up to vote as a reflection of the continued support for the Islamic Republic as a whole (traditionally somewhere between 50 to 60 percent for Majles elections with the exception of 2000 election which resulted in a clear reformist victory when 67% turned out to vote), and second, the extent to which the results can be considered a rejection of the conservative political faction in power. Once the results are in, then it is time to begin bickering and maneuvering for the next election: the presidential election of 2009!