In Iran: An electoral charade heats up
Although the next elections in Iran are six months away, the political establishment is in campaign mode already. The state-controlled media are full of “election news”, and hardly a day passes without several gatherings to discuss election strategy.
The elections are for a new Islamic Consultative Assembly or Majlis, which, theoretically, represents the key legislative organ of the Khomeinist regime.
The 290 members of the current Majlis are divided into four factions, all of which hope to retain, or improve, their respective positions.
The majority faction consists of individuals who present themselves as foot soldiers of the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. Their programme consists of whatever the Supreme Guide” chooses to say and do at any given time and on any given issue. Often, they go under the label of “Fundamentalists” or “Osouliyoun”.
A second group is formed by supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who wish to evolve the system towards a better balance of power between the “Supreme Guide” and the President. The “fundamentalists” call them “the deviant tendency”, accusing them of sharpening the knife of treason behind their backs.
In the third faction, one finds around 50 members labeled as “reformist”, although it is not clear what reforms, if any, they advocate. Among them, one finds nostalgics of the days when Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami acted as president.
Finally, we have a dozen or so members who could be described as “weathervanes”.
The “Osouliyoun’, or Khamenei’s group, have a fundamental problem. They want a big turnout of voters to show that the popular uprising after the presidential election of 2009 has not dented the regime’s support base. At the same time, they fear lest a big turnout translates into a massive rejection of the regime.
If the election becomes a referendum against the system, the traditional machinery for “fixing the results” might not be able to deliver as it has for three decades.
This is why the pro-Khamenei group is canvassing for the exclusion of all but a handful of candidates not totally devoted to the “Supreme Guide”.
Theoretically, that is easy to do. The Council of Guardians, a mullah-dominated body that must vet candidates, could veto the candidacy of all but a handful of those suspected of less than total devotion to the “Supreme Guide”.
However, such a move might reduce whatever attraction the elections might have. Sensing that things are fixed in advance, voters might not bother to go to the polls. A low turnout could be seen as a popular rejection of Khomeinism.
The pro-Ahmadinejad, or “deviant”, faction also has its problems, including that of how to get its candidates past the Council of Guardians.
The guess is that the council will allow the “deviants” no more than two dozen seats in the next Majlis.
Ahmadinejad’s dream of creating a political base that could continue after the end of his presidency in 2013 appears less realistic than five years ago.
Because the Islamic Republic does not have an independent election commission, the government controls the electoral process from start to finish. The Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Security and Intelligence run the show in cooperation with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Theoretically, therefore, Ahmadinejad could use those government departments to fix the results in favour of his faction.
His problem, however, is that, unlike 2009, the two key ministries involved and the IRGC are not headed by members of his faction. Today, all three posts are held by men who dislike Ahmadinejad for a variety of reasons.
Three of the five presidents who preceded Ahmadinejad tried to build personal support bases, and failed.
Khamenei became one of the two exceptions because he was intelligent enough to know that he could not claim a separate existence outside patronage from Ayatollah Khomeini, the “Supreme Guide” of the time. The other exception was Muhammad-Ali Raja’i, who did not have enough time to develop personal ambitions as he was assassinated a few weeks after becoming president.
To be sure, Ahmadinejad is a more astute politician than the other ambitious trio of presidents before him, Bani-Sadr, Rafsanjani and Khatami.
However, his problem is that he is forced to operate in a new configuration.
The 2009 presidential election put an end to the Khomeinist regime’s electoral pretension. Without waiting for the official announcement of the results, the “Supreme Guide” intervened to anoint Ahmadinejad as victor. With a single blow, it became clear that elections counted for little. What counted was the word of the “Supreme Guide”.
To have a separate existence, Ahmadinejad must challenge Khamenei’s rule by decree. But how could he when it was Khamenei who, in 2009, effectively decreed him as president?
The so-called “Reformists” have even bigger problems. The have to suck up to Khamenei so that he would let them become candidates in the first place. At the same time, they have to feint anger against Khamenei’s “dictatorship” so that they could attract urban middle class voters.
That balancing act is all the more difficult because the “reformists” are divided into numerous groups, each with a different agenda. At the same time, the urban middle classes who still think that they were cheated in 2009 do not appear interested in the coming election charade.
Their only hope now appears to be a coalition with Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf, a former police chief and Tehran’s current Mayor. Qalibaf wants a Majlis victory as the springboard for his presidential bid in 2013. However, becoming too closely associated with “Reformists” might put him on Khamenei’s black list.
All that leaves the “weathervanes” as the only happy faction. Many are likely to squeeze in, as opportunists often do. In the Khomeinist system, as in despotisms in all cultures, political survival requires a good dose of opportunism.
Ahmad Tawakkoli, a notorious “weathervane”, rejects the charge that people like him change with the wind.
“It is not us who change,” he asserts. “It is the wind!”