Iran’s Upcoming Elections Up for Grabs

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So confident are Iranian conservatives three months before the country’s February 20, 2004 parliamentary elections that, in the words of one right-wing strategist, they have stopped talking about how to beat reformist candidates and begun to plan "how to run the nation." Conservatives believe that victory next February will precede an even larger triumph in the presidential election of 2005. Their optimism, which finds glum echoes in Western analysts’ predictions of a conservative takeover, is misplaced. It is too soon to call the outcome of the February vote, and too soon to conclude, as Washington hawks may have done, that Iranians’ hopes for peaceable reforms are doomed.

Iranian voters have shocked the pundits before, notably when they delivered a landslide for President Mohammad Khatami in 1997. Back then, it was taken for granted that Khatami’s conservative opponent, Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, the favored candidate of the regime, was a shoo-in for the post. Four years later, even Khatami’s campaign managers were surprised when 22 million Iranians — turning out in numbers far exceeding predictions — gave him an overwhelming second popular mandate.

The prognosticators’ crystal balls proved foggy before the February 2003 nationwide municipal elections as well. While most expected a serious drop in voter turnout, almost no one imagined that so few (10 to 15 percent of eligible voters) would exercise their franchise in the major cities. Fewer still, not even the conservatives, dreamed that the reformists would be swept out of their seats on city councils, including in the capital, Tehran. As that election day drew near, a hard-line conservative daily ran a cartoon showing hoof marks leading to the city council building — in mockery of the politicians they expected to be running it. But, for many reasons, it is premature to bandy about the results of these local council elections, considered proof of Iranians’ declining faith in voting, as the model for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Past Patterns, Present Questions

In the years since the 1979 revolution, Iranians have gone to the polls in large numbers. The lowest turnout in a parliamentary contest, elections for the First Majles (Assembly) in 1980, was 52 percent. During the last parliamentary elections in 2000, a time when hope for change ran high, approximately 70 percent of voters took part. The presidential race of 1997 brought out even bigger chunks of the electorate.

First-ever local council elections in 1999 attracted 60 percent of eligible voters. But the 10 percent discrepancy between this rate and the next year’s parliamentary turnout is generally attributed to the disdain of some conservatives for the local councils as a reformist project and, perhaps even more, to the greater importance of parliamentary elections. Even in the local council elections of February 2003, close to half of the electorate cast a ballot on a national basis. It was in the major cities (which make up a quarter of the total population) where participation was alarmingly low. Only 11 percent of eligible voters showed up in Tehran, with slightly larger percentages voting in other cities, helping the conservative candidates to win. Outside urban areas, however, reformists maintained a majority in local councils, though they often lost seats. Might the low urban turnout presage a new, long-term national trend?

Past patterns show that people in the provinces vote in accordance with personal, ethnic, tribal and family affiliations. In Majles elections, provincial voters also want to send powerful local representatives to the capital to lobby the central bureaucracy for resources. In the past, these factors boosted national turnout at times when participation in major cities was low. But as seasoned social scientists have pointed out, residents of provincial areas also tend to emulate the behavior of people in larger cities, especially Tehran. It appears that at least some residents of smaller cities were surprised that Tehranis boycotted the local council elections to such a large extent. At this point, it is unclear which of these tendencies will play a greater role in the coming Majles elections. Will provincial voters continue to come to the polls to make sure their local interests are addressed in the capital, or will many of them choose to copy Tehrani abstention from voting?

Adding to the unpredictability, Iran boasts one of the youngest populations in the world, with roughly two thirds (and counting) of its people under 30, as well as one of the lowest voting ages. Men and women aged 16 and over are allowed to take part in national elections. Every year, the preferences of younger Iranians become more and more instrumental in determining the overall results. The young flocked to voice their preferences in the two presidential elections of 1997 and 2001, as well as in the 2000 parliamentary elections, when they helped to ensure the reformist bloc’s margin of victory. But there are no surveys that predict how Iranian youth would vote, or even if they will vote, come February 2004.

On the other side of the argument, some analysts maintain that the low turnout in the local council elections is due mainly to voter disillusionment with those institutions’ poor performance in major cities. Proponents of this theory are hopeful that Iranians feel differently about the parliament’s performance. While they expect a part of the population to drop out — mainly those who generally did not take part in national elections until they found hope in the person of Khatami and his reformist supporters — they are confident that the bulk of those who voted before 1997 will show up next February. Turnout, however, is not the only uncertainty for the parliamentary reformists.

The Reform Camp’s Challenge

Four years after the peak of their energy in advance of the 2000 Majles elections, the reformists find themselves on the defensive. They are trying to withstand the attack of the conservatives while battling growing dissent within their own coalition and popular disappointment with their lack of achievements to date. The Second of Khordad Front — as the reformist bloc in Parliament is known — is definitely not as unified as it was in 2000. Internal disagreements about the scope of reforms and how strongly and radically to stand against the onslaught of the conservatives have played a big part in bringing about the divisions. If the reformists have not articulated a clear strategy in the current campaign, this may be why.

But the reformers also learned during previous campaigns that broadcasting their strategy loud and clear for their opponents to hear is not wise. During the 2000 race, the conservative Guardian Council — an unelected body that has the power, under the Iranian constitution, to block bills passed by the Majles — threatened to subject the majority of reformist candidates to an ideological vetting process. The reformists retorted that they would flood the ballots with hundreds of candidates, so that no matter how many were disqualified by the Council, the voter would still have plenty of choices to pick from. Thus forewarned, the Council did the opposite of what they had promised, rejecting very few reformist candidates, hoping that the abundance of choice would split the vote.

More importantly, the reformists are increasingly concerned about conservative surveillance of their strategy sessions. Mohammad Reza Khatami, leader of the reformist party Mosharekat and the president’s brother, was quoted in the Iran newspaper saying that "we see among ourselves that all of our meeting rooms are bugged and all of our members are followed… This situation necessitates that we do not announce all that we want to do in advance." Despite the secrecy, the main components of the reformists’ strategy are easily identifiable in their speeches and articles. Perhaps their greatest achievement has been to convince many within the conservative camp that the fate of the regime is bound up with attendance at the polls next February.

The National Security Debate

The syllogism the reformists have used is not hard to understand. The hawks in Washington and Tel Aviv, they argue, believe that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a house of cards. Iranians are so frustrated with the regime, the hawks calculate, that, with a bit of encouragement, they will rise up and dispose of clerical rule. Hence, the "external enemy" can be expected to continue exerting pressure to keep the regime on a crisis footing, while sending messages of support for the Iranian people’s fight for freedom and democracy. But if voter turnout in 2004 and 2005 is high, the reformists’ logic continues, the Washington hawks are bound to be discredited, and the White House will be more likely to adjust its stance toward engagement and dialogue.

The reformists’ political opponents, therefore, face a challenge in deciding where their best interest lies. A dramatic fall in voter turnout will favor the conservatives’ electoral chances; the last local council elections proved that they can count on their supporters to show up, while the reformist voters stay home. Nevertheless, editorials in the major conservative papers and comments by politicians affiliated with that camp show that the reformists have succeeded in convincing a number of key players of their viewpoint.

Taha Hashemi, an editor of the moderate conservative paper Entekhab, thought to be close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, puts it this way: "If the world faces a regime whose most important election — the parliamentary elections — has little public backing, it will make all efforts to settle its scores with that regime." He continues: "Some incorrectly believe that appeasing America and expediting discussions whose outcome is not known could save us from this situation. But this is wishful thinking because [the Americans] will not talk to us from an equal position based on respect." Khamenei’s own statement in October is the best evidence for the reformists’ success in emphasizing the importance of mass participation. "What is important to me in the first place is the people’s presence in the elections," he said, adding, "who makes it to the parliament is in second place."

The Extent of Vetting

Perhaps less successfully, the reformists have gone on to contend that voters will turn out if the elections are free and fair, an attempt to convince the Guardian Council not to vet their candidates en masse. This is a tough sell. After Khatami came to power in 1997, many conservatives regretted having allowed him to run in the first place. When it came time for the 2000 Majles elections, once again some right-wing strategists were upset that their camp had barred the candidacies of a mere 8 percent of those who wanted to run. The expectation is that the conservatives will not repeat this "mistake" come February, particularly since low levels of vetting would not guarantee an increased turnout. Conservatives may recall that local council elections in February 2003 were described as the "freest ever" nationwide vote in Iran. Candidates from "outsider" and dissident groups, including the national-religious supporters, were allowed to try their luck. But they were not successful in winning seats, or in enticing large numbers of Iranians to the voting booth.

The reformists reply that while people stayed home when vetting was at a minimum, they may be further discouraged if the conservatives block more candidates from entering the races. Despite these reformist efforts at persuasion, the Guardian Council and the reformist-controlled Interior Ministry are already sparring over their respective spheres of authority over candidacy, before formal campaigning has even started.

Re-forming The Reformist Bloc

Expanding rifts among the 18 political groups and factions that comprise the reformist bloc pose another major challenge to leaders trying to craft a unified strategy in advance of the upcoming elections. Three main voices are audible. "Radicals," such as the Participation Front and the Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization, have threatened to boycott the elections, loath to appear stymied by the conservatives before their constituents. "Moderates," led by the main clerical reformist faction — Majma’ Rohaniyoun-e Mobarez (MRM), which includes Majles Speaker Mehdi Karrubi and President Khatami — have advocated reasoning with the right to get the best deal possible. Finally, "right of center" groups, mainly the Executives of Construction, are pondering a break with the reformists, in favor of either independence or coalition with moderate conservative factions. Meanwhile, student associations, who appear disillusioned with the reformist front and tired of being labeled too radical, are threatening to abstain from voting entirely.

For their part, the conservatives are doing their best to widen the chasm among the reformists. At the peak of the debate between the radical and more conciliatory reformist groups in the early autumn of 2003, right-wing newspapers spread a rumor that the MRM is contemplating a new coalition with its conservative clerical counterparts. The conservatives are apparently also trying to tempt the Executives of Construction to switch sides.

Yet, as February 20, 2004 draws closer, it appears that many reformists are putting their differences on hold. Khatami and Karrubi convened a series of joint meetings with members of the Second of Khordad Front, with the president promising to endorse a joint slate of candidates if his supporters could produce one. The more radical reformers, meanwhile, concluded that, despite structural obstacles to their agenda, they must remain in control of major institutions such as Parliament. "After much debate, that [consensus] even included peripheral groups," explained a member of the Mosharekat faction. "We kept playing out the scenarios, and realized that, although it is a choice between bad and worse, staying in the scene is the better option. Even if we cannot change things at the pace that the people want, we can at least parry some of the blows of the hardliners, and keep inching forward towards reforms."

Despite this tendency toward conciliation, the reformists are holding in reserve a number of wild cards should their rivals take things too far. There are rumors, for example, that President Khatami might request that the presidential elections be held a year early, to coincide with the Majles elections. Such a drastic move, which would be tantamount to resignation, is unlikely given the moderate cleric’s past behavior. But if implemented, it would create a substantially different atmosphere for the February 2004 vote.

Past Mistakes, Present Options

With the "stay or quit" debate largely over, the reformists are focusing their attention on how to induce the Iranian people to come out and vote for them. They say they have learned from past mistakes, and that their days of taking voters for granted are over. As prominent reformist MP Fatemeh Rakaei put it, "One of the reasons for the loss in the [February 2003] councils elections goes back to ourselves, since we thought people would participate and the reformists would get votes. Since we were very confident about this, we did not…invest in the elections in the way that was necessary." Former deputy interior minister Mostafa Tajzadeh, who was forced out of office after standing firm against the Guardian Council’s vetting authority in previous elections, added that, "our problem in this round in not disqualification…. Our worry is about people’s participation, particularly in big cities."

To drum up support, the reform camp is trying to reestablish lost ties with other groups, mainly university students and national-religious figures. The recent "political fast" movement — wherein major reformist figures fasted in support of political prisoners — represents one aspect of this strategy. The fasts, which started before Ramadan and extended throughout the Muslim holy month, were often held at universities, where a star-studded cast of reformist leaders delivered political speeches after the breaking of the fast at sunset.

Second, the reformist leaders admonish prospective voters that boycotting the elections can only result in a conservative resurgence, hence risking a return to the more closed public space of the pre-Khatami days. The reformists point to the program of Tehran’s new hard-line mayor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has cracked down on the formerly liberal granting of concert licenses and apparently plans to close down many cultural centers in favor of Qur’an recitation halls. The people’s choice, like that of the more radical reformers, might be between bad and worse, but keeping the reformist faction in power at least offers limited hope and requires minimum energy: simply turn out and vote.

The message itself could be an effective one, particularly if councils in conservative-controlled cities persist in implementing policies that are unpopular with the youth. Nevertheless, the reformists have not always framed this argument in an appealing manner. Reformist MP Behrouz Afkhami, for example, recently claimed that Tehranis deserve their hard-line mayor because they were "too lazy" to vote. As one Tehran resident commented, "While I understand the argument, and frankly I am undecided whether or not to vote at all in February, if another reformist speaks like that again, I can assure you there is no way I would vote for them. I would just stay home."

Up for Grabs

On the other side, the conservatives are doing more than talking like winners. Expecting a higher turnout and hence a tougher race outside the major cities, the conservatives are discussing the option of fielding their more prominent, "brand-name" candidates in the provincial areas. In larger cities, the right wing will likely rely on new faces promising to concentrate on issues affecting the day-to-day lives of voters, such as job creation and the nation’s worn-out infrastructure, rather than esoteric notions of democracy and freedom of speech.

There are also rumors that military leaders affiliated with the right-wing faction will enter their names in the Majles elections. Perhaps the conservatives believe that Iranians will view military men as strong, disciplined politicians who can cut through bureaucratic red tape. The reformists are crying foul, reminding their opponents that the constitution expressly bans the presence of the military in politics. Of course, a commander who quits his post by a certain date is legally allowed to run. But, warn the reformists, such a commander might instruct subordinates to transport his former troops to the polls — giving himself a built-in electoral advantage.

The forthcoming parliamentary elections, in short, are up for grabs. Plenty of evidence indicates that Iranians are frustrated with the inability of the reform movement to overcome conservative stonewalling; indeed, this is a major reason why voter participation plummeted in 2003. If recent voting patterns hold, in February 2004 the conservatives might be able to secure most seats in about ten major cities. Still, the reformists have a fair chance of winning a majority of seats in the rest of Iran. The Seventh Majles could therefore be more pluralistic, with more factions represented and more independent MPs, but the reformist bloc would retain its voice in the legislature. Yet the addition of millions of newly eligible voters each year and the tendency for Tehran to be a model of behavior for other parts of the nation are enough to cast doubt on the reliability of previous elections as an indicator of future results.

Meanwhile, although a heated factional fight continues, the state as a whole has concluded that its security is tied to its ability to attract citizens to the voting booth. Each camp is devising a strategy to take over the next parliament through analyzing their past successes and failures, but the Iranian voter remains elusive and hard to predict.

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