Election campaigning formally started this week in Iran, with public rallies, posters and groups of young activists distributing fliers on the streets. The primary concern of all the reformists and moderates seems to be mobilizing the voters. “I’ve taken the oath to defend the constitution and will do all in my power to ensure a fair and free election,” said Rouhani in a tweet published in English on February 2nd. There have been many pleas made to voters, or rather appeals to not be discouraged by the battle over candidates and its disappointing outcome.
On February 26th Iranians will vote to re-elect the Majlis (the national parliament with its 290 seats) and this year also the Assembly of Experts, with its 88 “wise members”, which has the power to choose (and in theory depose) the Islamic Republic’s highest authority, the Supreme Guide. A plethora of candidatures – 12,000 of which 800 for the Experts – have been put forward for assessment to the Council of Guardians, the body with the power to veto candidates for public appointments. Over half these candidatures were rejected with the highest level of failure ever, mainly affecting moderate and reformist candidates. It is a sign of the extremely defensive stand assumed by the system’s most extreme wing. Let us analyse the reasons for this.
This double election has come at a delicate moment. Following the nuclear agreement signed on July 14th, the wall of economic sanctions has started to crumble and Iran has returned to the geopolitical and economic stage. These are times of great expectations for this nation of almost 80 million people of which two thirds are under the age of 35, well-educated, in search of jobs and opportunities. It is also, however, a time of great power manoeuvres and clashes of interests.
The election for parliament will “determine the direction of internal politics,” said President Rouhani a couple of weeks ago. It is true that the outgoing legislature, dominated by ultra-conservatives, has obstructed his government in every possible way. His ministers have been obliged to defend themselves from continuous motions censoring almost everything, from negotiations on the nuclear issue (explicitly supported however by the Leader Ayatollah Khamenei) to economic policies. The Rouhani government is planning important reforms to improve the economic governance in an attempt to broaden the fiscal base (including the large Islamic foundations and important financial groups that have until now been exempt), impose transparency on the banking system, energy subsidies and state welfare. Such plans will be difficult to implement without parliament’s support.
The election for the Assembly of Experts is equally important, because it involves the system’s future continuity. Elected by universal suffrage, the Experts remain in power for eight years and usually do not have a great deal to do. However, the current leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is now 75 years old and while for the moment all rumours of illness have been proved wrong, a succession is clearly looming. The Experts elected this week will have to manage the transition (this is why the “manoeuvres” concerning this Assembly started over a year ago). Moreover, today all the system’s senior positions are held by member s of “first generation” revolutionaries, those who supported Khomeini, and many of them are now in their 80s. In short, a generational change is about to affect the country’s entire leadership. Some are wondering if there will be a new Leader (who would still be a member of the old guard and the problem would be postponed for a while) or whether perhaps there will be collegial leadership. The Islamic Republic’s power system will be profoundly changed, but who will manage this transition and in what way? This worries the Leader – as for example when in recent months he started to warn of “the penetration of western influence” threatening the values of the Islamic Republic (as always, culture and freedom of expression become a political battle ground).
The battle for candidatures reflects this power clash. The Council of Guardians consists of six religious men appointed by the Leader and six jurists appointed by the head of the judiciary, in turn appointed by the Leader (this is the Islamic Republic’s great anomaly, in which institutions emanated by the religious authority have power of veto over institutions elected by universal suffrage). It represents the system’s most extremist wing, the one that now fears it will lose control over the system created by the Revolution.
The exclusion of Hassan Khomeini from the list of candidates for the Council of Experts, announced just as Rouhani was on a state visit to Italy, caused an uproar. The 43-year-old theologian attended the Qom seminary, has published theological papers and is supported by famous ayatollahs. He is also one of 15 grandchildren of the Islamic Republic’s charismatic founder, all of them more or less committed to promoting reforms, some openly critic of those in power. Excluding him seems absurd.
Even worse is the fact that reformists say that that only 1% of their candidates have been approved, about thirty names out of three thousand. Well-known names, religious men such as the young Khomeini, or former MPs and representatives of the “Islamic Left” have been rejected because of their alledged “non-adherence to Islam” and to “the Islamic Republic.” Not only the reformists, even those simply moderates have been rejected. The most extremist part of the system wants to prevent Rouhani from “benefitting” the popularity arising from the end of sanctions and stop the political axis from shifting towards the moderates and the reformists.
Many of those excluded have appealed the decision. Even President Rouhani has entered the fray. “Nowadays, employment is the priority for the country, we need competent people in parliament,” he said on January 21st, adding that “parliament is the home of the people, not home to just one faction.” In Iran “there is a school of thought with between seven and 10 million supporters” with the right to be represented. Rouhani did not name names, but his reference to the reformists was clear (Rouhani is a moderate, not a reformist, and presides over a coalition government; but he certainly does not wish to remain hostage to an ultra-conservative parliament). On another occasion, Rouhani appealed for acknowledging “a greater participation of women in political life.
This year over 1,200 women presented their candidatures, three times as many as in 2012. This is the result of the extraordinary mobilisation undertaken by activists to “change parliament’s male aspect.” They too have been massively rejected.
Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has also intervened with harsh criticism aimed at the Guardians, saying, “From whom have you received your qualifications? Who has given you permission to judge? Who gave you the Friday prayer podium and state television?” These words have in truth been also criticised by many reformists (ill at ease with being defended by the former president who many blame for past power plays), who considered the statement counterproductive. The fact is that last Friday, Rafsanjani spoke on state television for the first time after six years (the head of state television is also appointed by the Supreme Leader as is the head of the judiciary and the commander of the Revolutionary Guards; strongholds of conservatism).
Finally, the Guardians have readmitted 1,400 names. It is still unclear how any of these can be considered reformists or how many are women. What is certain is the rejection of all the 16 female candidates for the Assembly of Experts, which remains an exclusively male domain. President Rouhani’s advisor on women’s rights, Mrs. Fahimeh Fahramanpour, has criticised the exclusion of women. These lists, however, are final and that battle is over.
The battle for votes instead is still ongoing. There is always the temptation to boycott these elections. An open letter to President Rouhani, signed by about 300 academics, reported on by the reformist website Kaleme on February 9th, states that with this massive exclusion of reformists “it would be better to work on ensuring these elections are not held at all.” But this would mean handing the legislature over to extremists again. “Voters must have the final word,” said the president during a ceremony held to commemorate the anniversary of the revolution on February 11th. The choice is limited, acknowledged President Rouhani, however, “if we vote we will have a modest advantage. However, if we do not vote we will lose and nothing more.”
Translated by Francesca Simmons