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Parliament's Evolving Role

28 Sep 2011 17:20Comments
166303_915.jpgThis is the ninth in a series on parliamentary elections due in March 2012.

[ Q&A ] w/ Ali Reza Eshraghi, a senior editor at several of Iran's reformist dailies. He is currently editor of Iran programs at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and a Rotary World Peace fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

How has parliament's political role -- and authority -- been affected by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency?

Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini said the "Majles is at the helm of affairs," a mantra long used to underscore the importance of the Iranian parliament. But Ahmadinejad has openly challenged the balance of political power in the Islamic Republic.

His position has not gained wide traction. Yet the president has managed to undermine parliament's authority by refusing to implement new legislation or interpreting them as he pleases. The subsidy reform legislation is one example; it is being implemented far faster than envisioned by the parliament.

How does parliament's role today compare to the reformist period under President Mohammad Khatami?

Both parliamentary sessions were raucous in their deliberations but ultimately failed to assert their authority in rivalries with other institutions, such as the Guardian Council.

But a key difference lies in the level of deference or even obedience shown to the supreme leader. During the reform era between 1997 and 2005, 135 lawmakers wrote a bold letter to Ayatollah Khamenei asking him to "drink the poison goblet" and give into political reform. In contrast, the current parliament has turned into a "branch of the supreme leader's office," according to conservative lawmaker Ali Motahari. Many lawmakers base their vote on what expectations of Khamenei's wishes.

During the reformist era, unelected institutions -- such as the Guardian Council and the judiciary -- blocked all efforts by lawmakers to reform laws and political institutions. But the reformists continued to try. In contrast, the current parliament's conflicts are mostly with the executive branch.

Parliament is clearly unhappy with Ahmadinejad's conduct in refusing to implement laws. In May, 100 lawmakers demanded that Ahmadinejad be summoned for questioning. But parliament has lacked the will to pressure the administration to change its ways. For example, parliament impeached two of Ahmadinejad's cabinet ministers, but eight other impeachment attempts failed as lawmakers withdrew their signatures from the motions. The high number of reversals set a record in the Islamic Republic's eight parliamentary sessions. Many current lawmakers have also declined to oppose Ahmadinejad out of fear that it would benefit their common enemy -- the reformist opposition.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has also been reluctant to back parliament against the president -- so far. The motion to question Ahmadinejad had sufficient numbers, but was set aside by the parliamentary leadership due to the lack of Khamenei's support.

What are the key issues triggering tensions between the presidency and parliament?

The clash between the administration and the majority of Majles lawmakers is complicated. Initially, the conservative bloc had no choice but to endorse Ahmadinejad in both the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections. Many saw him as the only candidate who could bring in enough votes to counter reformists.

But since coming to power, Ahmadinejad and his cohorts have tried to become independent players in Iranian politics. The president's allies have even claimed that the vote he received in the national election was independent of conservative allies and was instead based on his own popular appeal. Conservatives are now worried that they will be pushed aside by Ahmadinejad.

How are Iran's diverse factions preparing for the parliamentary elections?

There are still six months left until the parliamentary elections and political dynamics remain fluid. The shifting balance of power in Iran may also create new alliances. Still, chances for reformist participation are slim. Reformists, many of whom are considered part of the Green Movement opposition, are demanding free and fair elections as well as the release of political prisoners. Khamenei has so far resisted all their demands. But reformists are still likely to generate some noise in the months leading up to the elections.

Hadi Khamenei -- the Supreme Leader's brother -- is expected to be named president of the Coordination Council for Reformist Parties, a rotating position. This choice shows that the reformists plan to at least symbolically confront the ruling conservative bloc.

What role will the Guardian Council play in the 2012 election? Do you expect it to vary from the past?

In 2009, the Guardian Council and Interior Ministry cooperated to affirm disputed presidential election results. But the two bodies are currently controlled by competing sides: the Interior Ministry by the pro-Ahmadinejad allies and the Guardian Council by the conservatives.

Therefore, these two bodies may compete in the upcoming election to assure the victory of their respective sides. One will be doing it through its supervisory role by vetting of candidates and perhaps even disqualifying the votes on various grounds, and the other through the use of state funds and its numerous human resources as the body in charge of holding elections.

This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

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