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Majlis elections in Tehran. (Reuters photo)

The road to victory
It won't be smooth

By Rasool Nafisi
February 22, 2000
The Iranian

Any researcher following the process of constitutional change in the Islamic Republic of Iran since its inception would notice the gradual movement toward autocracy. The 1979 draft constitution introduced a fairly moderate republican form of government, while the constitution ratified a year later incorporated the institution of velayat-e faqih, or supreme leader, which was a major blow to the democratic spirit of the draft.

About a decade later, constitutional changes stripped the president of more powers, and concentrated them in hands of the supreme leader. Finally about four years ago, the politico-religious elite in a formal letter asked the supreme leader to do away with republicanism all together and establish "the true government of God" by declaring the absolute rule of the supreme leader.

The unprecedented surge of political participation of Iranians in the 1997 presidential election, which brought Mohammad Khatami to power, halted the gradual trend toward absolutism, at least temporarily. For the first time Iranians experienced a relatively free election. Although, it must be added that Iranians have tried their hand in 20 national elections so far, and they seem to be determined to win over despotism through rational rather than emotionally-charged political action.

Preparations for the present parliamentary election started almost a year ago, when the Majlis passed bills to abrogate existing meager freedoms of expression that were the only tangible outcome of the 1997 presidential election. Ironically the legislative move to destroy the fruits of Khatami's "Civil Society" movement vindicated its emphasis on law and order. Various laws passed after the 1979 revolution are somewhat discriminatory and partly archaic. But the observance of these same laws are quite vital to the survival of a nascent civil society. The alternative is chaos, in which each powerful ayatollah and his clientele enforce his own interpretation of the shariah, or religious law.

The conservative-led Majlis was well aware of the popularity of the civil society movement. Thus deputies led by Mohammad Reza Bahonar passed a number of laws to lessen the chances of a reformist victory in the elections. The age limit was raised from 15 to 16 to prevent fewer young voters from backing the reform movement. The Council of Guardians was given the power to disqualify candidates even after the elections, and the right to change regional governors who supervised elections. The latter was vetoed by the Expediency Council, but conservative hard liners were still determined to do all they could to maintain their control over the Majlis.

On the other hand the reformists came up with their own "flooding" strategy. They offered a large number of candidates to make it difficult for the Council of Guardians to reject every single one. In response, the council approved the majority of the reformist candidates, but also lowered the minimum percentage of votes needed for candidates to be elected in the first round. This was thought to improve the hard liners' chances of winning in the first round. The assumption was that there were too many reformist candidates and they were going to take away votes from each other. And since there were fewer hard-line candidates, they were going to get more votes. But the pro-Khatami groups had an answer for that too: they endorsed only a limited number of their own candidates and gave people clear choices.

Another measure passed by the Majlis was to codify votes, which was meant to take away voting secrecy and intimidate those who may vote for the reformists. This was challenged and later changed by the Ministry of Interior. The ministry criticized the Council of Guardians for refusing to review complaints by rejected candidates (about ten percent of registered candidates) and not producing documents to prove their disqualification.

The state radio and television stations, controlled by the supreme leader, also made no effort to encourage people to vote, and candidates were forbidden to advertise or campaign until the week before elections. The various factions promoted their policies mainly through their own newspapers. The conservatives called on people to vote for "God fearing" candidates, while the reformists campaigned on a range of issues from expanding freedoms to a referendum to reestablish relations with the U.S.

In the meantime, various factions entered and exited many alliances. The main bone of contention was whether or not to endorse Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the most powerful men in the Islamic Republic. Rafsanjani had been elected president with 93% of the votes in 1993. But in recent weeks he had come under a barrage of attacks in reformist papers, who accused him of -- to say the least -- ignoring acts of repression by the Intelligence Ministry during his presidency. Rafsanjani tried to defend his record, but to no avail. He received only a fraction of the vote in Tehran. Even if he does get the minimum percentage of votes to enter the Majlis, nearly everybody agrees that he has lost much of his prestige.

So the reformists have won the majority of the Majlis. This stunning victory will not bring full-fledged democracy to Iran, but it will halt the advancement of the anti-democratic forces.

What now?

In a recent interview with Newsweek, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, the former reformist mayor of Tehran, implicitly defended the quietist politicking of Rafsanjani, over the press and propaganda-based policy of Khatami. In fact there are reformists who support this position. They feel that outspoken reformists have caused the conservatives to react with violence and more determination. A quietist approach, these reformists argue, will bear more results, while the loud approach of the Khatami camp will create more resistance to change.

This might have been true a year or two ago. But the political scene has changed rapidly. As the majority faction of the new Majlis, reformists hope to challenge the Special Court of Clerics, limit the powers of the Council of Guardians, improve U.S.-Iran relations, investigate the chain murder of intellectuals by Intelligence Ministry agents, and widen press and individual freedoms. These are all popular demands and long overdue. The conservative Council of Guardians could block any such moves by branding it unIslamic. This would further alienate Iranians from the clerical establishment. Is this what they want?


Rasool Nafisi, Ph.D., is the Discipline Advisor of General Studies at Strayer University in Northern Virginia. He is currently working on a book on resecularization of the state in Iran. To top

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The ballot box
Majlis elections mark new era
Written and Photographed by Dokhi Fassihian
February 21, 2000

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