March 14, 2008


Iran Elections: Limited but Interesting (Amir Taheri, 3/14/08, Asharq Alawsat)

Iranians are invited to go to the polls today to elect the next Islamic Consultative Assembly, the ersatz parliament set up by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1980.

At stake are 290 seats contested by almost 3000 candidates. (The exact number is unclear because almost 1100 out of 4470 'approved candidates' withdrew at the last minute.)

The most hotly discussed topic, however, is the size of the turnout.

A raft of political groupings, from monarchists to socialists, and passing by liberals and nationalists, has called for the boycott of an exercise they describe as "fraudulent".

The boycott call has found an echo with sections of the "loyal opposition" inside the Khomeinist establishment.

It resonates with many Iranians disillusioned with the failure of the Majlis to act as an effective interface between the people and those in power.

Battle of the conservatives (Sami Moubayed, 3/15/08, Asia Times)
With elections taking place in Iran on Friday, the popular joke among Iranians says: Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (current and former conservative presidents) are in an airplane over Tehran. Ahmadinejad says, "I am going to throw down $100, and let 10 Iranian citizens get them and pray for me." Rafsanjani, who is richer by far, replies, "I am going to throw out $1,000, and let 100 citizens pray for me." Provoked by the bravado of both men, the pilot mumbles, "I am going to throw both of you out, and let 65 million Iranians pray for me."

It is no wonder that Iranians are not enthusiastic about voting for the 28th parliamentary elections. Instead of heading to the ballots, they are shopping for the Iranian New Year (the March 20 holiday of Nowruz). The reasons vary, including lack of inspiring candidates, along with lessons learned - the hard way - being that the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) cannot deliver real change in Iranian society.

Most Iranians are young - 70% of them are below the age of 25, born after the Islamic revolution of 1979. Slogans about preserving or exporting the revolution are no longer attractive. Typical politicized college freshmen, for example, who are usually the catalysts for voter turnout on election day, were born in 1989 or 1990, 10 years after the revolution.

These young people are searching for ways to combat the 20% unemployment rate in Iran and 22% inflation.

Reformists Face Uphill Battle in Iranian Elections: In a flurry of hymns for martyrs, recitations from the Koran and all kinds of sweets, more than 4,000 candidates are campaigning for 290 seats in Iran's parliament. The reformist opposition is doing its utmost to prevail, but Ahmadinejad loyalists will win the election on Friday. (Dieter Bednarz)
The Karroubi list is called "National Trust." There are no parties, in the stricter sense, in the Islamic Republic. In Tehran alone, 30 candidates, including a few women, hope that this alliance will help them win seats in the parliament. The leader of the movement isn't interested in running for a seat, but his wife Fatme is. She stands on the stage, completed veiled in black, with only her oval face visible, the garb of the strictly devout woman in Iran. She tells the audience that she has "turned prisons into hospitals," and that she intends to fight for the rights of women. Naturally, she says, she has her husband to thank for many things -- a comment that gets her enthusiastic applause. But whether it will be enough to win her a seat in parliament is doubtful.

The competition is stiff, with more than 4,000 candidates running for the 290 seats in the Majlis. Most of the candidates belong to one of three major movements. In the conservative camp, the candidates who are "true to principles" and support President Ahmadinejad are campaigning against those who are "critically true to principles" and support former Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and Tehran Mayor Mohammed Ghalibaf. This right wing faces off against a large, loose coalition of 21 groups of reformers and conservative pragmatists. They back candidates like former President Mohammed Khatami and political dinosaurs like Karroubi.

At least the campaign seems to have revitalized Karroubi. In a hoarse but powerful voice, and using sparse but decisive gestures, Karroubi talks about his years with the "Great Imam" Khomeini, as if his former close relationship with the revolutionary leader were enough to get the candidates on his list voted into office on Friday.

Karroubi hardly takes any political position at all, instead limiting himself to repeated appeals to vote for a "strong parliament." "We must all go out and vote," Karroubi tells his audience. His speech is a far cry from settling scores with the Ahmadinejad government. Like many candidates of the wing more likely to be critical of the regime, leading candidate Karroubi ultimately comes across as bland, toothless and helpless. There is something tragic about the event, and not just because of the speeches commemorating Iran's martyrs.

The reformist and pragmatic wing has already suffered serious setbacks in the candidate selection process. Because the Interior Ministry and the Council of Guardians, a sort of Iranian constitutional court, refused to approve a third of all applicants as candidates, the conservatives are running unopposed in some districts in the country. "The mass exclusion clearly shows that the election organizers want to keep the ruling group in power," says Sayed Madani. His group, the National Religious Alliance, is boycotting the election, calling it "unfair."

Because many frustrated supporters of reform candidates stayed at home in the last parliamentary election, the well-organized conservatives were able to capture the majority in the parliament. In the capital, which is in fact a stronghold for the reformers, voter turnout in the last election was about 30 percent. Political observers doubt that men like Karroubi and Khatami will manage to turn out their supporters in significantly larger numbers this time.

No one ever reformed their society by not voting, but it will ultimately require both the U.S. and Ayatollah Khamenei encouraging reformers to participate again to resume Iran's Reformation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 14, 2008 7:57 AM

Something to ponder:

Maybe the reformers don't trust the electoral process in Iran -- and the mullah-in-chief -- for a reason. Perhaps b/c it's a sham.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at March 14, 2008 8:48 AM

The electoral process has been quite honest. Khamenei needs to let more reformers run though. It's too hard to manage your pet reformer into office. Democracy isn't that manageable.

Posted by: oj at March 14, 2008 12:13 PM

There are some laughable statements here.

"...resume Iran's Reformation". I didn't know any reform had started. Letting a thousand flowers bloom, just so they can be chopped down, is not reform.

"The Great Imam" - yearning for Khomeini is like yearning for Stalin.

But the most interesting is that 1100 candidates "withdrew" at the last minute. A couple of weeks ago, this blog was almost orgasmic because anywhere from 220 to 360+ candidates had been put back on the ballot. Now we see the true balance. At least 700 in arrears of your crowing.

Reform is impossible with a boot in the face. The stomper can't let go, and the stompee just wants to catch his breath.

Until the Majlis ceases being a closed shop, there will only be more stomping (of one sort or another). Khameini is playing you like a violin, and whether Mahmoud is re-elected or not really doesn't impact anything (except that we will miss his shock value).

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 14, 2008 6:49 PM

If you didn't know reform was well underway then you really know nothing about the differences in Iran since Khomeini died. Which makes the rest of little utility.

Posted by: oj at March 14, 2008 9:57 PM

Sure, things 'improved' after Khomeini died. "Reform" occurred from about 1990 until about 1997/8. Once Khatami was in office, the current wave of morals policing, secret arrests, secret detentions, and the like, began. It has ebbed and flowed (in small degrees) ever since. Mahmoud is not popular, but he just might win re-election because the primary purpose of the government today is to keep the populace cowed. And that has not changed since 1980.

My two closest Persian friends, who visited home regularly from about 1984 on, have not been back in almost 4 years. They don't want to go, not so much because of Ahmadinejad, but because it is just too depressing for them. The nation is enervated. It is pro-American (under the surface), but there is no energy. The boot is pushing down harder. The men who could galvanize the people to twist the boot off are hounded, smeared, jailed, or even killed. The women who speak out are beaten and killed.

I'm not sure what 'reform' you allude to (more Western financing and investment, more TV, more music, etc.). There has been no change in the pressure of the boot.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 14, 2008 10:38 PM

It is very well that konservatives won in Iran. Their hardline politics and inflexibility save this country. Thanks to them Iran is not second Pakistan or Iraq. They are Iranians and they know value of this word. It gives good prognosis for country for the future. They are not lackeys of USA and other countries. They do not want to sell their country for bribe for their private pockets. And there is a government wich has power in Iran.

Posted by: Sal at March 15, 2008 7:11 AM

Indeed, he's so unpopular he's been unable to reverse the reforms and it's the conservatives who've stopped him. All it will take is our encouraging Iranians to turn out to vote and he's gone, as witness the boycott backfire again this time.

The refusal to acknowledge democracy there and to encourage its practice is counterproductive.

Posted by: oj at March 15, 2008 7:16 AM

Actually. what makes them so little of a threat is the separation of powers renders their government largely ineffective.

Posted by: oj at March 15, 2008 8:54 AM

You are exactly right about the "separation" of powers - although it is not a formal thing, but rather, just a criminal division of territory. Khomeini wasn't strong enough to be Stalin, so he became a sort of Tito (a more fanatical and murderous version). And there were other 'revolutionary' types in Iran while Khomeini was in exile, so he had to accomodate them, to a degree. This jumble makes them unlikely to start any war, but it also makes them unlikely to have any internal reform.

We can acknowledge that they have elections. But it cannot be granted that they are a democracy. Who among the 3000 or so "approved" candidates would truly reform anything in Iran? In the past several years, the Guard has become a virtual mini-state, with its own private armories, private foreign policy, private banks, and a larger and larger 'ownership' of land and business in Iran. They aren't giving up squat to any reformer. And whoever is the prime mover behind the nuclear program isn't going to back away, either.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 15, 2008 9:48 AM

Yes, they're a republic, like us. That's what Khamenei has to preserve as he Reforms. No easy task.

Posted by: oj at March 15, 2008 12:34 PM