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Opinion | Iran's Parliamentary Elections, Part I: The Political Landscape

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI

25 Feb 2012 14:53Comments
750877_orig.jpg A farce, but an important one.

[ opinion ] The elections for the Ninth Majles (parliament) since the 1979 Revolution will be held this coming Friday, March 2. These elections have been transformed into a sort of team wrestling match held in an enormous stadium. Two groups grapple fiercely with each other, cheered on by a small number of supporters at ringside, while the vast majority of the people in the packed stadium are silent and uninterested, because they regard the match as an exercise in futility. The two groups that are fighting are the supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while the silent mass represents the large majority of the Iranian people who will, in all likelihood, sit out the elections, even if on Saturday the government announces that 60 percent of eligible voters came to the polls, fulfilling Khamenei's "prophetic" prediction.

Such is the state of the upcoming Majles elections. They will bear not even the slightest resemblance to a free, fair, and democratic vote. Even a cursory review of the political landscape indicates this.

The leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi, have been under severely restrictive, extralegal house arrest for over a year. They will remain there as long as they do not change their views -- which they will not -- or there is a national and international movement for their freedom.

Almost all of the other important opposition figures -- men such as Seyyed Mostafa Tajzadeh, Behzad Nabavi, Dr. Mohsen Mirdamadi, Feyzollah Arabsorkhi, Dr. Abdollah Ramazanzadeh, Dr. Mohsen Aminzadeh, and Abolfazl Ghadiani -- are in jail. They have been incarcerated not because they committed any criminal offenses -- they did not -- but precisely because they can organize and lead the people. Altogether, at least 900 courageous men and women are in jail on politically related charges, representing the highest number of political prisoners in Iran since thousands of such prisoners were executed in the summer of 1988.

The most popular and influential opposition groups have been outlawed or forced into silence. They include the reformists -- Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), the Organization of Islamic Revolution Mojahedin (OIRM), and the National Trust Party -- groups allied with the reformists -- the Executives of Construction Party, which is close to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; the leftist Association of Combatant Clerics (ACC) and Association of Teachers and Scholars of Qom; and the Nationalist-Religious Coalition -- the nationalist National Front, and several other small groups. Meanwhile, hardline political groups have proliferated like wild mushrooms, with no restrictions whatsoever on their activities.

The most important university and former university activists -- brave men and women such as Bahareh Hedayat, Hassan Asadi Zeidabadi, Ali Jamali, and Shiva Nazar Ahari -- have also been jailed. Their organizations, the Office for Consolidation of Unity (OCU, or Tahkim-e Vahdat) and the Organization of University Graduates (OUG, or Advar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat), have been decimated. The hardliners have created a fake OCU.

Forty-two of the country's most influential journalists are in prison, making Iran the worst state in the world in terms of jailing members of the press.

Brave men and women, such as Dr. Ahmad Zeidabadi, Keyvan Samimi, Bahman Ahmadi Amouei, Masoud Bastani, Mohammad Davari, Mehdi Mahmoudian, Hengameh Shahidi, and Fatemeh Kheradmand are languishing in jail, or about to be sent there.

Most of the reformist newspapers, magazines, and other publications have been closed. The very few that are still allowed to publish heavily censor themselves, lest they be quickly shuttered. Iran ranks near the bottom in global rankings of freedom of the press.

Some of the most courageous attorneys representing the political prisoners -- men and women such as Nasrin Sotoudeh and Abdolfattah Soltani -- have also been imprisoned. In effect, the hardliners dare the attorneys to work on behalf of the political prisoners at the risk of their own freedom.

Many NGOs, such as the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, founded by Shirin Ebadi, that pursue human rights issues such as cases of discrimination against women, free speech cases, and political prisoners' rights have been outlawed, or forced into silence.

Given this dismal state of affairs, can any significance still be attached to the elections? Yes, in fact the upcoming vote is crucial, for the following reasons.

The confrontation between the supporters of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei has become very fierce. The rift between the two men has grown too deep to be closed. The results of the vote will have a deep effect on the confrontation and what will happen in the runup to the next presidential election, to be held in June 2013.

Despite repeated appeals by Khamenei, the principlists (osoolgarayan) have not been able to unify. Their supposed coalition, Jebheh Mottahed-e Osoolgarayan (JMO, or Unified Front of the Principlists), shattered into several pieces. First, a hardline group, Jebheh Paaydaari-e Enghlelab-e Eslami (JPEE, or Durable Front of the Islamic Revolution), led by the reactionary cleric Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi and Ahmadinejad's former Interior Minister Sadegh Mahsouli, the "billionaire minister," split off. This will be described in part II of the series. Subsequently, some of the current principlist Majles deputies who were not nominated by either group established their own party. Former Revolutionary Guard chief Mohsen Rezaei set up his own group, Jebheh Eistadegi-e Enghelab-e Eslami (JEEE, or Resistance Front of the Islamic Revolution). There are at least four other groups in the hardline and conservative camp that have published their own lists of candidates. These divisions may well help the Ahmadinejad faction.

The hardliners around Khamenei have been expressing fear that Ahmadinejad and his supporters will manipulate the vote through the Interior Ministry, which supervises the elections, and take control of the Majles. The president's camp has reportedly spent huge sums to buy people's votes and tip the scale in their favor. If the Ahmadinejad faction does control the legislature, not only will any threat of his impeachment disappear, but his supporters will also be energized to boldly confront the Khamenei camp.

Khamenei also needs a large turnout. He needs to show (1) that the political system he rules can still motivate the people to vote, can still make them believe that their votes actually count for anything; (2) that he is popular and respected and, thus, people will heed his personal call to vote; and (3) that the people did not heed the opposition's calls to boycott the elections. And, as usual, (4) a large turnout -- whether real or reported -- will be interpreted as evidence of the political system's legitimacy.

Meanwhile, the confrontation between the Islamic Republic and the West has entered a dangerous phase. Tough economic sanctions have been imposed on Iran, the economy is in shambles partly as a result of the sanctions and partly due to the Ahmadinejad administration's vast corruption and incompetence, and not a day goes by without heated discussion of the possibility of a war pitting Iran against the West and Israel. A large turnout would be presented by the hardliners as evidence that the nation is unified against foreign threats.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is also worried about the Majles elections. It wants to control the parliament not only to rein in Ahmadinejad and impeach him if necessary, but also advance its own agenda. Several months ago, the Guard representatives in the Majles spoke about possibly eliminating the presidency entirely and reviving the post of prime minister, who would be selected by the Majles and not subject to direct popular vote. Last year, one Guard spokesmen, Brigadier General Salar Abnoush, said that there would be bloodshed if the result of the Majles elections turned out to be incompatible "with our values." The reason, he said, was that "there will be infighting in the Majles that will allow the sedition [Green Movement] to rise up again." As I will describe in part II, although the list of JMO candidates is dominated by former Guard officers and commanders, the corps is still worried about losing the elections.

The combination of these factors has made the upcoming vote a very important one, even though the Majles elections are simply a process for dividing power between political groups that are supported by only a small minority of the people, and even though the vast majority of the people and their representatives will be absent.

Part II describes the main groups, their candidates, and the crucial role being played by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

see also | Everything I Know About Religious Democracy I Learned in the Third Grade

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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