|Not in the mood
Iran's local council elections, four years later
By Lara Rabiee
February 13, 2003
In the early part of 1999, Iranians went to the polls to vote for candidates for
newly established local councils representing their city or village. In newspapers
throughout the world, the elections were greeted with enthusiasm. In addition to
being a first (local councils were established briefly after the revolution but abandoned
until 1999), candidates supporting President Khatami-style reforms were expected
to win in large numbers, as were women candidates.
Now, four years later, Iran is getting set to hold the second such elections, scheduled
for late February. Iran News, one of three English language daily newspapers in Iran,
reported that over 225,000 individuals throughout Iran had signed up by the close
of candidate registrations, down from the 330,000 candidates that participated in
The decline reflects a lowered mood towards the local council elections, and perhaps
elections generally. "Some sort of depolitization of society is happening,"
says Azam Khatam, a sociologist at the Urban Planning and Architecture Research Center
According to Khatam, four years ago Iranians threw themselves behind what was one
of President Khatami's main campaign promises, the establishment of local councils,
in order to show their support for political change. As it has become more and more
clear that Khatami and reformers have not achieved hoped for gains, enthusiasm over
the elections has likewise declined.
A poor showing by the Tehran City Council whose work has been hampered by internal
squabbling, may also help explain the lowered mood. Two weeks ago the Council was
dissolved and the Mayor removed from office after failing to pass a budget.
For students of urban planning, like Khatam, the lowered mood is unfortunate since
local councils are a promising start of a long awaited movement towards more decentralized
governmental decision making and one more accountable to the Iranian people and their
Iran is one of many lower-income countries dogged by development projects that are
conducted in a top-down fashion. According to Kian Tajbakhsh, Senior Research Fellow
at the Milano Graduate School of the New School University, a number of powerful
central ministries have dominated urban planning with minimal input from localities.
The result can be disastrous.
Two years ago, in the province of Farse, a housing project was placed on land local
engineers said was prone to flooding. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Development
failed to heed the call, and before the project was complete water had flooded it.
Lesson learned: "Specialists not from a locality often don't have accurate information
about local issues and conditions," explains Tajbakhsh.
The local councils were envisioned to change all this. Mentioned in successive constitutions
since the early part of the century, but never implemented for long or with much
independence, they were again introduced into the constitution drawn up following
the 1979 revolution. Supported by Islamists who claimed the councils have roots in
Islam's "high priority to consultation" and the left which saw them as
instruments of workers' control, the councils were to be an essential unit of decision-making
in local affairs.
Not surprisingly, given Iran's historical discomfort with decentralized power, the
councils as envisioned were never implemented. In stead, a series of laws following
the revolution gradually diluted their intended powers to where today the councils'
only power is in electing and dismissing mayors and approving municipal budgets.
But mayors have been historically weak in Iran, helping to carry out centrally devised
plans, and thus "the council is restricted because all the council can do is
supervise the mayor," says Tajbakhsh.
Despite this weakness, there have been important successes. In Tehran, the city council
successfully pressured the municipality to do away with a much criticized yet until
then entrenched system of increased construction density, where developers paid hefty
sums to the city in exchange for permits to build above acceptable levels. The system
had led to all sorts of problems for city residents including inadequate services
and infrastructure to accommodate the population. And this is where the power of
the councils really lies: "By monitoring municipalities it is more difficult
for managers to do wrong," says Khatam.
Another area of success is the increasing visibility of women. Women candidates did
better in the elections than their male counterparts (a larger percent of those who
ran won). Today, according to the Iran NGO Initiative, a project sponsored by the
government of Iran, of the over 700 city councils throughout Iran, 177 have at least
one female member. They write that had there not been any vetting of candidates by
the Interior Ministry, even larger numbers of women would have participated in the
elections since some women "feared the public reaction should they be rejected"
by the Ministry.
Finally, the councils offer a platform for individuals to champion political reform.
Indeed, in Tehran and larger cities, this may be the council's most prominent role,
with a good number of council members having used their election win as preparation
for a more ambitious run for parliament.
The elections later in February will happen ahead of
a local council reform bill currently circulating in Parliament. The bill implements
another constitutional provision on the local councils, that of creating a hierarchy
of councils. They include provincial levels and a national level council which would
have the power to submit bills to Parliament.
Unfortunately, the reform bill is unlikely to expand the influence of the local councils
as many had hoped. "If the content of what councils can and cannot do is watered
down or at least not strengthened" as many suspect, the hierarchy will simply
lead to "institutional inertia," said Tajbakhsh. But he and other observers
of urban affairs see the establishment of local councils as a good first step. "We
should have a long term vision of this," says Khatam.
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