How fast and how far?
February 12, 2000
T E H R A N -- ONE thing is clear: when people cast their ballots in
Iran's parliamentary election on February 18th, most of them will be voting
for change. The point at issue is the pace of change, and the degree to
which the Islamic system should be altered.
The campaign has been dirtied by the mud that the would-be reformists
are slinging at one another. Officially, Iran allows no political parties.
The electoral system is Iran's own, qualified version of proportional representation,
with 6,083 candidates competing for the 290 seats in the newly expanded
parliament (576 applicants, predominantly from the reformist camp, have
been disqualified). The challenge for the voters will be to sort through
the labyrinth of tickets, loose alliances among political factions, and
the great many candidates who will be totally unknown to them.
President Muhammad Khatami's ticket, called the Islamic Iran Participation
Front, draws its candidates from 18 different groups. It offers a programme
new to Iran: a free press, a judiciary that stays out of politics, and
law enforcement that respects citizens's rights. Through these fundamental
changes, it claims, the republic will cease to be ruled by the clerical
establishment and become a nation with rights for all. Its slogan is "Iran
for all Iranians".
The ticket headed by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former two-term
president, calls itself Kargozaran, or Servants of Construction. Its candidates,
a mixture of centrists and technocrats, all claim to be "moderate"
and thus more acceptable than Mr Khatami's "leftists". They favour
a free market and less drastic social reform than that advocated by Khatami
loyalists. Whereas the Participation Front is calling on the electorate
to vote for its entire slate, the Construction candidates are encouraging
voters who want a bit of change to choose a mixed bag: some moderate conservatives
from their side and some hard-core reformists from the Khatami coalition.
Watering down parliament in this way, they argue, is a more practical,
and probable, solution.
Staunch conservatives, a more cohesive bunch, have been pushed to the
sidelines by the ferocity of the battle among the reformists. When they
can get themselves heard, they give warning that the election could result
in sacrificing Islamic values. Talk of citizens' rights, they argue, means
legalising immorality and trampling upon the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini.
They do better when they insist that economic reform must come before political
change: the national unemployment rate is estimated to be 17%, and at least
30% in parts of the country.
Mr Khatami's reformers hope that this election will be the start of
true party politics. Although the electorate may well be too cautious to
allow the Participation Front a landslide, if the reformers succeed in
becoming the majority in parliament, or at least a noisy minority, they
will push for institutional upheaval. And with public opinion behind them,
they are likely to succeed over the coming four years in changing some
of Iran's constitutional checks and balances.
One of the first items on the review list will be the role of the Council
of Guardians, the body of conservative clerics and jurists that supervises
elections and screens candidates. The guardians regularly come under fire
for eliminating prominent reformers from elections in order to give conservative
candidates an edge.
Another important development could affect the Expediency Council, the
institution that has the final say on all legislation. Mr Rafsanjani has
headed the council since its formation in the 1980s, including the long
period when he was Iran's president. If, as is possible, he becomes the
next speaker of parliament, he will be under pressure to give up his council
post. But if Mr Rafsanjani could be both president and council head, might
not Mr Khatami also hold the same two posts? Should that come about, it
would give a sharp fillip to reform.