When, in mid-January 2004, the Council of Guardians rejected the applications of 3,600 out of nearly 8,200 people seeking candidacy in Iran’s upcoming parliamentary elections, there was scant surprise in the country. President Mohammad Khatami, members of his government and sitting parliamentary deputies professed to be “shocked” by the number of disqualifications for the February 20 contests, but in fact the Council members and their conservative allies had long been hinting at their aim to purge the legislature, the press and, eventually, the government, of political rivals belonging to the diverse currents lumped together under the rubric of “the reformists.”

With the wholesale disqualifications, the conservative clerics hope to seat a docile parliament (Majles) which will open the way to unification of Iran’s fractured political system under a conservative monopoly after Khatami steps down from the presidency in 2005. By blocking the candidacy of leading reformists, including current members of the Majles, as well as independents and unknown aspirants, the Guardian Council is placing the conservative forces in what they perceive as a win-win situation.

“Silent Coup d’État”

Fully anticipating vocal protests from the reformist elements, the Council—a body of 12 unelected clerics vested with the power to overturn acts of parliament—has been ready from the outset to make some compromises. Since January 11, members of the Participation Front, the main bloc of reformist deputies, have led a sit-in in the Majles building, vowing: “We will resist this silent coup d’état, and stand our ground until illegally disqualified candidates are reinstated and fair elections are held.” For their part, Khatami and the reformist speaker of the Majles, Mehdi Karrubi, issued a joint statement demanding a “full review” of the candidate screening. Even Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, has requested that the Council reconsider its decisions. So far the Council has rescinded some 350 of the disqualifications, with Khatami claiming that an additional 150 applicants will be reinstated as a result of consultations between him, Karrubi and the Council. But the Guardians calculate that these meager compromises, while probably not redounding to their own credit, will still embarrass their political opponents before the Iranian public.

If prominent reformers accept their own disqualification, in exchange for the reinstatement of lesser known candidates, the next Majles will lack the leadership that can impose a common agenda on the reformist factions, no matter how large a majority they command. If, on the other hand, the prominent reformist figures are approved to run in the elections, while a significant number of unknowns remain disqualified, growing public distrust of the reformists’ true distance from arbitrary power will be confirmed.

Such distrust has already led to decreased voter turnout, in the local council elections of late February 2003; should the skepticism intensify and again depress participation rates, the conservatives could look forward to electoral victory. If the reformers opt to persist in contesting the disqualification, but eventually concede the battle, then the Guardian Council has ensured that conservative forces will gain an absolute majority in the next Majles. Their potential rivals for 180 of the 290 seats that are up for grabs currently languish on the list of the disqualified. Of this list, 58 percent hail from the reformist factions, and 30 percent are independents.

Clogging the Arteries

Since Khatami first won the presidency in 1997, the conservatives in Iran have resented their successive electoral defeats at the hands of their reformist opponents. Reeling from humiliation, the conservatives began a systematic offensive against the main components of the reformist movement: the independent press, the student movement and political dissidents, and the reformist front in Parliament. In the past four years, more than 100 independent publications have been banned, and many editors, publishers, writers and translators have been persecuted. Intellectuals, lawyers, academics, pollsters and social scientists have been jailed and mistreated, while student protests against these repressive measures have themselves been violently put down. Hardline conservatives have also moved to neutralize the current Majles. The Guardian Council has used its veto power to reject 111 of 295 mostly progressive pieces of legislation passed by the Majles, making the parliamentarians look like useless chatterboxes. In the last few months, the Guardians have reportedly employed 200,000 agents throughout the country to turn up supposedly incriminating evidence against potential candidates. Five times as many people were eventually blocked from running as in the last parliamentary election in 2000.

The conservatives have been willing to pay a heavy price for imposing deadlock on the political system. For the past 25 years, the regime had prided itself on high voter turnout in regularly held elections. Indeed, election patterns in Iran have remained fairly constant since 1988-1989, years which saw the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the death of Khomeini. Despite the systematic vetting of applicants—which limits the slate of candidates to those deemed sufficiently loyal to the regime—the majority of votes in every election have been cast for candidates who represent the possibility of opening up the Iranian system. During the tenure of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani in the 1990s, such candidates spoke primarily of modest openings in the heavily nationalized economic sphere after the austerity of the war years. Rafsanjani dealt rather ruthlessly with suggestions of a simultaneous political opening. But beginning with Khatami’s election, calls for fundamental political reform have gained ground. These calls have threatened the entrenched clerical establishment, though the reformists sitting in Parliament still back the principle that Iran should be an Islamic state.

The elections of the past seven years have demonstrated that the conservative establishment has a committed base representing 7-12 percent of the 46 million eligible voters. Reformers, on the other hand, have enjoyed the support of as much as 75 percent of the electorate, but have failed to translate the votes into institutionalized political power. As a result, Western journalists repeatedly write, and many Iranian citizens believe, that “real power” in the Islamic Republic lies with the conservatives. This is a misleading formulation. Despite their considerable coercive apparatus and economic resources, the power of conservatives is primarily negative: what they can do best is clog the system’s arteries. Lacking an effective, organized popular base, the reformers have focused their efforts on proving their credentials through good governance, but many of these efforts has been frustrated by conservative vetoes, as well as corruption and, sometimes, sheer incompetence.

Nails in the Coffin

The greatest weakness of Iran’s Islamist reformers has been their deep-set distrust of popular social movements—the spontaneous gatherings and independent institutions which they cannot control. They are generally reluctant to work openly with other reformers outside the regime, especially the secular forces, for fear of violent backlash from the conservatives. This shortcoming has contributed to the increasing loss of faith in the reformers among the Iranian public, and limited their ability to expand their base.

Asked by a journalist why the reformers have failed to firm up a base in political parties and labor unions, Behzad Nabavi, deputy speaker of the Majles, replied that, in his opinion, popular support should be limited to people showing up regularly to cast their votes. Another leading reformer, Abbas Abdi, who has been in prison since February 2003 for carrying out polls showing that ordinary Iranians want warmer relations with the West, was asked why the reformers did not consistently defend the student protesters who were physically assaulted by hard-right vigilantes during the Tehran University demonstrations of July 1999. Abdi replied that, at some point, the reformers determined that the protesting students were no longer following their leaders. Unable to dictate the slogans and behavior of the protesters, the reformers felt it was too dangerous for them to continue backing a movement which, ultimately, might not be of benefit to their cause. Fears of chaos, bloody crackdowns and foreign intervention have played an important part in this debilitating timidity, but the students and many other Iranians who had invested hopes in the reformists have been bitterly disappointed.

The Participation Front hammered another nail in the coffin of its credibility with these Iranians in October 2003, with the final communiqué of its much anticipated party congress. The opening speech at the congress had directly criticized the Leader, Khamenei, and proclaimed that every form of power—including velayat-e faqih (rule of the clerics)—had to be limited by law. This bold introduction raised some hope that the reformers might finally attempt to mobilize the public behind a set of concrete demands for structural change. But in the final communiqué, the party announced that it would not espouse civil disobedience, or any other peaceful means of protest, but would go on negotiating within the regime for “a democratic interpretation of the constitution.”

Popular disenchantment with these failed formal channels for achieving change became obvious in the presidential elections of 2001, when almost a third of the electorate (14 million people) did not vote. By the local elections of 2003, the number of abstentions had increased to 28 million. Only a “miracle” could now produce widespread participation in the February 20 balloting, said Saeed Hajjarian, a key reformist leader, in December 2003. Low turnout suits the conservatives just fine, as they can count on their solid 12 percent.

Just before the Guardian Council announced the disqualifications, the main student organization released a statement titled “Not Participating in the Elections May Well Be a Better Solution.” The student movement has been burned one too many times by violent repression, as well as the inability of the reformers to protect them, said the statement. “Unless elections lead to systematic and fundamental change they will only legitimize autocracy,” it continued. “The constitution of the Islamic Republic in its present form, with institutions such as the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council and [the office of] the Leader leaves no further room for democratization.” The student communiqué urged the reformers to leave positions of power and begin organizing to force change upon the system from below.

Can They Stand Their Ground?

Ironically, the hubris displayed by the mass disqualifications has reinjected life into Iranian politics. Coming in the wake of the disastrous Bam earthquake which killed perhaps 41,000 people and unified the population in deep national grief, the behavior of the Guardian Council showed the conservatives to be completely out of touch with the popular mood. For their part, the reformers have realized that their political lives will effectively end on February 20. If the bell has rung for the twelfth round of the boxing match, they have no option but to go for a knockout.

To the clamor for his resignation from provincial governors and ministers, Khatami replied: “We will stay together or leave together.” He has encouraged the striking Majles deputies to continue their sit-in as long as candidates are being screened out of the upcoming polling on spurious grounds. Eighty percent of the current disqualifications are based on judgments that the aspirant in question does not believe in Islam or in the constitution of the Islamic Republic—rather than on such criteria as citizenship, residency, age, fraud or criminal record.

Until now, the reformers have presented elections as an end in themselves. Questioned about the conservative victory in the local elections in 2003, Nabavi answered, “What victory? These elections showed that [the conservatives] win only if the people don’t participate. Victory in a cemetery is not a victory at all! Our aim is to limit power and make it act in legal and accountable ways.” But Iranians have been asking why they should return a reformist majority to the Majles if the deputies are unable to deliver on their campaign platform. To answer their constituents’ concerns, the reformers are forced to consider such sweeping measures as demanding changes in the composition of the Guardian Council and the judiciary. If all else fails, the reformists can obstruct the elections by urging people to cast blank ballots, or ultimately, by leaving the government to become the opposition.

The president and the Ministry of Interior could also choose to include the names of wrongly disqualified candidates on the ballots. On January 29, the minister of interior encouraged “all those who have been disqualified without any document” to resume their campaigns as if they will be allowed to run. But Iranian voters will watch to see whether the reformers, including the striking Majles deputies, do indeed stand their ground and insist on reinstatement of all the illegally barred candidates. Iranians have not forgotten that it was a sit-in at Parliament that marked the beginning of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911). If the reformers are seen to be compromising yet again in order to keep their foot in the door of government, they will lose all credibility with the public. If, on the other hand, they maintain a unified challenge to the authority of the Guardian Council, they may be able to galvanize public interest and demonstrate that the conservatives are weaker than they claim. This strategy of confrontation has its risks, but every day that the reformers hold their ground, they regain some of their former popular support. Public opinion will not allow them to back down, and still retain their present role in Iranian politics.

How to cite this article:

Kaveh Ehsani "Round 12 for Iran’s Reformists," Middle East Report Online, January 29, 2004.

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