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Elections | Defining Democracy Down: Iran's New Presidential Election Law


10 Dec 2012 20:10Comments
770625_orig.jpg A lesson in the utility of an unpopular chief executive.

[ news analysis ] Two major events recently took place within the recondite realm of Iranian power politics that on initial view may appear to stand in contradiction. First, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced that while the Majles was justified in passing a motion to question President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the floor of the parliament, "It is enough. Any further insistence on this motion will encourage the enemies of the nezaam," or ruling system. Less than 24 hours after the Supreme Leader's announcement, the motion's sponsors declared that they were retracting it. The much debated effort to bring the president to the Majles and hold him to account seemed to have come to nothing.

Soon after, the Majles approved major changes to the laws governing presidential elections, changes that Ahmadinejad denounced as fundamental violations of the Iranian Constitution, "the most important achievement of our Revolution." According to the Constitution, after the Supreme Leader, the president of the Islamic Republic is the state's highest officer, in charge of the executive branch and chief executor of the Constitution except in affairs "directly concerned" with the Supreme Leader (Article 113). Elected by direct popular vote for a period of four years, the president may stand for reelection to a second consecutive term, but not a third (Article 114).

As stated in Article 115, those eligible to run for president are "religious and political personages1 who have the following qualifications: citizen of Iran, of Iranian parents, wise and able, of good reputation and background, and a true believer in the official religion of the country and the founding pillars of the Islamic Republic of Iran." No other qualifications are constitutionally mandated, so scores and, in recent cycles, hundreds of Iranians have nominated themselves for the office every four years. With the exception of the first presidential election in 1980, however, only a few have ever actually been approved to run by the Guardian Council, to which articles 99 and 118 grant oversight of the election process.


The quadrennial parade of prospective candidates, among them some very colorful characters, lined up in front of the Interior Ministry to register their nominations, always attracts media attention and no small amount of public ridicule. Marjan, a 38-year-old bank clerk, recalls laughing at videos of the queued nominees before the last election. "Many of them were clueless; they did not seem to be in the real world. It was all so funny and pathetic."

Ahmad Reza, a 34-year-old businessman, has a different perspective. "Well a few nutcases always showed up, but you cannot think the whole process was ridiculous. It actually was one of the few moments that we could exercise our right to be part of political process, even if only to see the doors shut down in our face," he explains. Indeed, some who knew they had little hope of winning the Guardian Council's approval have nonetheless registered as a pointed political gesture, including opposition leaders Ezatollah Sahabi and Ebrahim Yazdi for the 1997 election; and Yazdi again, along with famous soccer player Naser Hejazi, who decried the corruption he saw endemic in Iran, for the 2005 vote.

Beside the constitutional qualifications for those who seek the presidency, the new legislation sets a minimum age of 40 and a maximum of 75, which disqualifies former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from seeking the office again. It demands a candidate have at least a doctoral degree or its seminary equivalent, which eliminates many midranking clerics. It restricts the definition of "political personage" -- someone who seeks nomination under that rubric must now attain recognition as such by either 150 individuals who have served as a minister, deputy minister, or governor since the Revolution or a majority of the Majles. For most nominees, it requires at least eight years of service as a minister, or a Majles deputy, or at an "equivalent rank" in the judiciary or military. A nominee can also register with the approval of 400 individuals with experience as a minister, deputy minister, or governor; or two thirds of the Majles; or 30 faculty members from across the country; or 30 high-ranking members of the clergy; or 20 members of the Assembly of Experts.

One of the rationales offered for these sweeping changes is the mockery that the existing process has sometimes evoked. Deputy Kazem Jalali, head of the Majles Research Center, reminded the MPs that "last time, a 24-year-old lady came to register her candidacy. When she was asked why she wanted to be the president, she answered that it was because she was unemployed."

The legislation has sped through the system. Early in the fall, the bill was submitted for debate with the signatures of 120 deputies. This past week, it was approved by a vote of 144 to 91, with 11 abstentions.

As the Majles voted, Ahmadinejad was delivering the opening speech at the Symposium on Executive Branch Rights in the Constitution. He declared his belief that the Constitution alone set the qualifications for a presidential candidate and that laws passed by parliament may properly deal only with how the government conducts the electoral process. Addressing a group of reporters, he said, "They could just put the name of the person they want to be the president next year and be done with it" -- a thinly veiled reference to Majles Speaker Ali Larijani. His run for the chief executive office in 2005 attracted little support, but many think that he will make a bid for next June's ballot.

The debate over reforming the presidential qualification rules is not new. In the past, however, either or both the Majles and the Guardian Council, which wants to maintain its vetting authority, have opposed any change. This time around, the dominant faction of principlists -- conservatives who have sworn ardent fealty to the Supreme Leader -- is happy with alterations drafted entirely to its design. As for the Guardian Council, before the vote on the legislation Larijani held a meeting with its members to address their concerns. The Majles speaker already possessed significant influence with the council. Six out of its 12 members are nominated by the head of the judiciary -- his brother, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani -- and approved by parliament. (The other six members are clerics chosen by the Supreme Leader.)

Speaker Larijani has acknowledged the concerns that the new law will limit the Guardian Council's power. He told reporters that all potential candidates will still need the council's approval. What no one from the state and state-aligned media has publicly asked is if the legislation will further limit the choices given to the Iranian people and further constrain their democratic rights.

The principlist camp has successfully portrayed critics of the new legislation as supporters of Ahmadinejad. This has shifted the debate from one over citizen's rights and made it part of the one about Ahmadinejad and his camp's efforts to have one of their own succeed him.

It is doubtful whether the Majles would have been able to pass this legislation with such alacrity and ease had a truly popular chief executive been in office. With that observation in mind, the Supreme Leader's recent intervention to stop parliament from questioning the president does not seem to be motivated by any rejuvenation of his erstwhile favor for Ahmadinejad. It seems, rather, that the nezaam finds it useful to prop up a weakened Ahmadinejad precisely because he is now so widely disliked by the Iranian people.

Seyyed Solat Mortazavi, deputy interior minister for political affairs, whose office is in charge of election administration, called the new law "an effort to establish an incorporated company with a limited number of shareholders." Facing a revolutionary tribunal more than three decades ago, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, longtime prime minister to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, stated, "I was the director of a company whose president was the Shah." Many historians agree that all true executive power rested with Pahlavi, and that the nominal head of government was little more than his henchman. The Islamic Republic of Iran may just have taken a major step toward institutionalizing a very similar system.


1. The Farsi word here is rejal, which literally means "men," but is conventionally used to refer to "personages" (i.e., "persons of significance"). Many thus hold that this constitutional passage does not bar women from running for president. However, the Guardian Council has never approved of a female presidential candidate.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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