Majlis elections in Tehran. (Reuters photo)
The road to victory
It won't be smooth
By Rasool Nafisi
February 22, 2000
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
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
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.
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