A setback for reforms

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Inside the Parliament complex in Teheran, reformist members protest against the Council of Guardians' decision. - RAHEB HOMAVANDI /REUTERS

Inside the Parliament complex in Teheran, reformist members protest against the Council of Guardians' decision. - RAHEB HOMAVANDI /REUTERS

Iran's conservative Council of Guardians bars over 4,000 reformist candidates from contesting the general elections and the people at large react to this with unusual disinterest.

THE decision of Iran's supervisory Council of Guardians to bar 4,000 candidates, including 82 serving members of Parliament, identified with the reformist political group headed by President Muhammed Khatami from contesting the coming general elections has triggered yet another political crisis in the country. Iranians had not yet recovered from the devastating earthquake that hit the city of Bam, when the Council dealt the political blow. The Council, an unelected supervisory body comprising six Islamic legal experts and six civil lawyers, has been an ally of the conservative clerical establishment that is engaged in a power struggle with the reformist bloc headed by Khatami.

The Council has been the major obstacle in the path of the reforms process initiated by the President. Two years ago it vetoed two Bills sent by Khatami, one proposing an end to political trials and the second proposing an end to the role of non-constitutional bodies in the vetting of candidates for elections. Iranian politics continues to be very complex as an emerging group with secular tendencies tries to remove the conservatives who have monopolised power from 1979.

The reformists draw inspiration from the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, when a coalition of merchants, intellectuals and clerics forced the Shah of the time to accept constitutional limitations and concede the demand for the establishment of a Majlis (Parliament). Although the 1906 revolution was short-lived, it continued to inspire later generations. The other important reference point for the reformers has been the Oil Nationalisation Movement (1951-53), when the nationalist Muhammad Mossadegh challenged imperialist control over Iran's natural resources. Many Iranians had initially seen Khatami in the mould of a reforming Mossadegh.

The Reform Movement, which became an important player after the election of Khatami in 1997, consisted of students, journalists and secular and religious intellectuals. They demanded the establishment of Islamic democracy and argued that secularism would only serve to strengthen religion. The reformists were aware that it was the failure to enthuse public opinion that was responsible to a great extent for the failure of the Constitutional Movement and the collapse of the Mossadegh government. The modern-day reformists did succeed in connecting with the masses until 2000, when they got a massive electoral mandate. After that, they tripped badly. Many of the reformists got enamoured of the trappings of power and President Khatami refused to challenge the conservatives in their citadels.

The Army and the judiciary continue to be dominated by conservatives. The judiciary has played a particularly key role in undermining the credibility of the reformist movement. The judiciary, headed by Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi, has imprisoned reformist politicians and activists on flimsy grounds. The annual budget of the judiciary is more than that of the President. When a former war hero and professor of history, Hashem Aghajari, reportedly said that Muslims did not have to follow their clergy like "monkeys", he was promptly given the death sentence by a judge. Another judge ruled that any discussions about negotiations with the United States would be treated as a criminal offence. A poll in 2002 had revealed that 70 per cent of Iranians favoured a dialogue with the U.S. However, the poll also revealed that roughly half of Iranians remained deeply suspicious of the U.S. The Khatami government remained a mute spectator while the conservatives went about systematically undermining its credibility among the people.

ELECTIONS to the 290-member Majlis are scheduled to be held on February 20. If the Council of Guardians' decision is not reviewed, many of Khatami's supporters will be debarred from contesting, making a mockery of the elections. Among those disqualified are two Deputy Speakers and two women members of the Majlis who had consistently espoused feminist causes. Already, many Iranians seem to be disillusioned with politics. On earlier occasions, when the Council of Guardians had taken similar decisions, students had instinctively taken to the streets. However, this time there has been no student protests. The people had reposed much faith in the ability of Khatami to bring about the changes he had promised on the campaign trail when he first came to power in 1997. Khatami was re-elected President with a thumping majority in 2001. But Khatami and his band of reformers did not use the strong popular mandate to loosen the grip of the hardliners, led by the clerical establishment, and thereby caused disillusionment among ordinary Iranians.

Public apathy with politics was apparent during the town council elections held in February 2003. The polling in big cities like Teheran was only around 15 per cent and, more important, the majority of the people who voted stood by the conservatives. Many reformist candidates lost the elections. Until the Council came up with its latest decision, public interest in the general elections was said to be lukewarm. There is a school of thought in Iran that claims that the Council's decision was in fact a pre-meditated one, designed to instil public interest in the forthcoming elections. Large-scale voter apathy would have considerably diminished the credibility of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it says.

Meanwhile, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has assured the angry Majlis members that he would request the Council of Guardians to review its decision. "The Guardian Council has enough time to review the cases carefully," said Khamenei in a television broadcast a few days after the crisis erupted. He said that the goal was "to prevent the violation of anyone's rights". Khameini had to intervene as many of the reformist legislators staged a protest sit-in inside the premises of the Majlis. They have also threatened mass resignations. President Khatami had initially suggested that he was ready to quit if the Council did not lift the ban. "The people's right to have free elections should be observed," he said in a speech to the Majlis.

But, as the crisis extended to the second week, Khatami was urging moderation on the part of the reformist legislators who were threatening to resign en-masse and requested them to call off their agitation inside the Parliament building. The fasting legislators and their supporters, numbering over a hundred, have refused to accede to the request of the President. Khatami's failure to confront the hardliners head on once again has disillusioned his supporters. Some State Governors elected on the reformist ticket have also threatened to quit if the Council of Guardians refuses to review its decision. Most of the barred candidates are those who have been critical of the Council or of the virtually unlimited power the spiritual leader Khamenei enjoys under the concept of Velayat-e Faqih (supreme religious jurisprudence). Theoretically, Khamenei is answerable only to God.

As of now, the conservative backlash against the reformists has not evoked the kind of response many people expected. Many Iranians, it has been reported, have not so far even heard about the political crisis in Teheran. The West too seems reconciled to the downsizing of the reformists. The so-called hardliners had shown during the recent crisis centring around Iran's nuclear programme that it was they who could deliver. Although the decision to agree to the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) demands was formally taken by President Khatami, it was Ayatollah Khamenei's handpicked representative, Hassan Rohani, who did the spadework leading to the agreement. The conservatives, evidently, have a strong grip over the conduct of the country's foreign affairs. President Khatami's second and last term of office gets over next year. The conservatives, who hope to recapture the Majlis with a little bit of help from the Council of Guardians, hope to be in complete control of the country once again by 2005. They hope to have by that time a pliant Majlis and their own candidate as President.

However, experts are of the view that regardless of whoever gets the upper hand in Teheran in the coming months, political stability will not be affected. The general feeling is that though clerical rule is outdated and inefficient, the people still recognise the legitimacy of the government and the contributions of the clerics in the struggle against the Shah and his U.S. backers.

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