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 1999.
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 in Tehran.
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 needs.
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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